It was 5 p.m. Saturday. The phone caller told the salesperson, ''Look, I'm in a hurry. How soon could I get my roll of color film processed and printed?'' The answer back: ''Well, let's see. If you get it to us here at the store by 6 p.m., you can have it by 7 tonight.''
Something special? Color prints in one hour - and on a weekend at that? Not at all. It's becoming routine. Something fascinating has been happening to film processing in the past year and a half. To date, six or more US retail chains have opened 1-hour photo-print stores across the nation.
Fromex, a southern California company, says it was first, in early 1980. It now has 36 outlets and is opening two dozen more before year-end. In addition to chain-operated groups, there are also many individual 1-hour processors setting up in places like shopping malls, hotel lobbies, and along tourist-frequented streets of larger cities.
Newest to expand its quick-process photo operations, according to information given to stockholders at the company's annual meeting recently, will be Technicolor Inc., the professional movie film processor. In the company's first retail venture, its five-month-old pilot stores will lead the way for a target total of 35 fast-finish outlets by the end of 1982.
The success of all US operations in the newly opened fast-photo-print field depends on Japanese-made photo-finishing equipment. Naritsu, one of several companies in the business, offers computerized tandem process-and-print units in the $100,000-to-$150,000 price range. One machine takes about 20 minutes to develop the film; the other requires about 30 minutes to print. The quality of finished prints is said to be equal to those prints where customers have to wait a day or more.
Even before the advent of 1-hour processing, the consumer photo-finishing business (as separate from commercial work) had been growing in the United States. Consistent camera and film advertising in both print and electronic media has been helpful in the proliferation of many same-day or in-by-10-out-by- 5 competitive film shops.
Fotomat, the largest retailer of its kind with 3,800 units nationwide, is a good example of the basic expansion that has taken place in the industry. Even supermarkets and department stores are pushing film services to increase customer traffic.
Eventually, price is expected to be a key factor in the ultimate profitability of 1-hour processing. It may be some time, according to analysts, before there is positive information on consumer preference. Is super-fast service worth a higher price, or is it easier to pay less and wait a little longer? The increase in customers using 1-hour developing makes it look as though many amateur camera bugs think it is worth the price.
A West Coast check on prices for a 24-exposure roll of 35-mm color film showed the added customer expense to be in the amounts charged for prints, since processing prices are about the same in both operations. Independent stores charge about $9.68 for 1-hour developing, the Fromex chain charges $8.95. At Fotomat, where the wait is more than one day, the charge is only $7.61.