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Digital is making film just a photo memory

Fresh from a family vacation in California, Rick Wallerstein went to the Stop & Shop supermarket in Berkeley Heights, N.J., last month to drop off a roll of film, as he has done for about two decades.

But a sign on the familiar drop-box next to the juice aisle informed him that because of the advent of digital photography, film would no longer be accepted at the store. "The sign said something like, 'Thanks for your past patronage, and good luck,"' Wallerstein said.

When Wallerstein returned to the store 10 days later, both the box and the sign were gone. "It's like it never even existed," he said. "As if it had all been a dream."

Wallerstein had stumbled upon a trend that materialized not gradually, as many trends do, but instantly — like, well, an image on a digital camera.

"With the prevalence of digital cameras, to continue to do film processing where demand has continued to decline just wasn't feasible," said Robert Keane, a spokesman for Stop & Shop, which discontinued film-processing services at all 300 of its stores throughout the Northeast on Sept. 15.

The rate of decline is apparent from film sales — since only people who buy film need to have it developed. Over the past four years, the sale of film has been dropping at a rate of 25 to 30 percent each year. In 2006, 204 million rolls were sold, a quarter of the 800 million sold at the peak in 1999. "It's pretty alarming," said Bing Liem, senior vice president of sales for the imaging division of Fujifilm USA.

"The photo finishing ecosystem has fragmented," said Liem. It used to be a matter of dropping off a roll and choosing between one-hour and overnight processing, matte and glossy, 4x6 and 5x7. "Now you can bring your media card in and go to a kiosk and have it printed in a second. Or you can have it printed at a one-hour photo lab. Or you can upload the image to a wholesale facility on the Internet and have it delivered to a retail store."