I walked into my local Costco today to pick up some prints I'd ordered online. They were all profiled with the latest profiles and they looked perfect. My wife sent me along to Costco with a small envelope that had three 35mm negatives that she also wanted printed. Costco had printed work for me in the past and had done a nice job. I smiled at the clerk and asked her if she would help me remember how to do a print order. She smiled that oh I'm sorry to tell you this smile and nicely told me that they no longer could actually print from negatives. No prints from film of any kind. None.
When I got back home I started doing a little research on line. Prints from negatives have fallen dramatically for mass marketers like Walmart and Costco. So much so that Costco has started designing a new generation of stores with no photo finishing departments at all. None. And many others are following suit.
But it doesn't stop with film. My quick research shows that overall print sales in consumer mass merchandizing stores, grocery stores and drug stores chains is down by as much as 40% year over year. The decline seems to match, in slope, the same relative decline that happened when digital imaging eclipsed film cameras. The slope is quicker than many expected.
My feeling is that we've hit another inflection point in our society's transformation from artifact collectors to digital information consumers. We want the visceral delight of seeing our digital images immediately, on our little screens. We are no longer interested (as a cultural) in getting the little envelope of actual prints and looking at them and then storing them somewhere until they retire from our memories.
You will no doubt write to tell me, anecdotally, of all the people you know who crave physical prints to hang on walls and send to aging aunts and grandmothers but that may be because you are a selective and self-selected audience and not representative of the mainstream demographic for whom the machine print 4x6 was a ubiquitous (pre-digital) sharing medium. People with the ability to chose have chosen. Images are meant now to be enjoyed on screen. Not as shuffles through an envelope filled with paper prints.