School Pictures

The economics of school portraits are entirely nonsensical.

When I was a student I’d bring home a sample portrait (stamped “SAMPLE” to ruin its usability) and an order form for procuring prints in various sizes. Now what comes home is a complete portrait package with five sheets of fully finished prints. Parents send back any they don’t want along with payment for the ones they’ve kept and an order form for any more they still need.

So parents already have the product in hand and are just paying to keep it. And since there’s no resale value for a specific child’s prints, parents are really┬ápaying to not destroy the prints they already have.

Most of the apparent illogic here is surely the result of phenomenal economies of scale. Once the photographer is on site and has setup all his equipment, taking one more child’s picture adds almost no expense. Once the expensive photo printers are up and running, printing five more sheets is similarly inexpensive. The possibility that having all those pictures of their children in hand will incentivize some parents to pay justifies the small up-front expense.

What’s less easy to explain is this: I own a scanner. So when a beautiful, glossy 8×10 photograph comes home in my daughter’s backpack, I am not motivated to pay for it. I’m motivated to scan it in high resolution, and then return it for free.

That would probably violate either an implicit contract with the photographer or copyright law, but the very nature of the product makes its duplication impossible to police. I’m never going to be caught selling illegal copies of my daughter’s school picture on eBay, for example. Virtually the entire worldwide market for this particular item lives in my house.

Is this business model founded on trust in parents not to just make copies? Or on an assumption nobody’s smart enough to try it? Or are there just so many new parents buying prints now that losing a few to scanning technology is justifiable?

Whatever the reason, I’m not sure I want to discourage the practice. It looks like I may be able to get twelve years of free portraits out of it.

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