A Manifesto for Christian Retail Thrival (David Almack)

Article Date: 07/12/2009 08:47:23

With all the turmoil in the world of Christian retail lately I have been thinking a lot about what it will take to not only survive but to thrive in the new world that we live in. With that in mind, the following are ten ideas and suggestions that I think could make a real difference for those of us that apply them.

Originally published on David Almack's blog: FaithLit

OK – Maybe manifesto is a little too strong and “thrival” is not a real word, but I got your attention. Thrival is a word that I made up combining the words survival and thriving. With all the turmoil in the world of Christian retail lately I have been thinking a lot about what it will take to not only survive but to thrive in the new world that we live in. With that in mind, the following are ten ideas and suggestions that I think could make a real difference for those of us that apply them. I don’t know about you, but I would rather thrive than just survive.

1. Focus on market niches where we can be competitive and there is in fact less competition – I realized recently that our stores carried the largest “in stock” selection of Bibles in our city and that we are not talking enough about that opportunity for ministry and sales. As I was thinking about it another thought that dawned on me is that we also carried the largest selection of Bible accessories, Bible covers and audio Bibles as well. Though there is in fact plenty of competition in the Bible marketplace, there is less competition for Bible accessories and Bible covers. Some other areas for niche thinking include:
  • Kids, Tweens and Teens products
  • Church Supplies
  • Gifts
  • Greeting cards
2. Embrace New Media marketing – if you are like me, the concept of blogging sounded vaguely “wierd” just a couple of years ago. Given that reality, you are now reading this information on my blog. The world of consumer marketing has radically changed and we must change to reach the customers we already serve in more effective ways and to appeal to new customers as well. Migrating our marketing efforts to e-blasts, Facebook fan pages and blog posts is an essential part of thriving in the new world that we live in. People want to receive their information in the ways that they are most familar with and that is rapidly becoming on-line for most of us. This change should not mean abandoning direct mail and radio, but simply enhancing the effective marketing efforts that we are already employing. These new media intiatives can actually cost less and produce greater results for the effort involved.

3. Develop a Service Mentality – we have to move from a transactional and commodity mind-set to one of service in all that we do. If we think that simply having a great selection in a clean store in a good location is going to cause us to thrive, I think that we are sadly mistaken and the closure of so many stores with those exact qualifications is the living (dying) proof. We must see each customer as a guest in our ministry/resource centers. They each have unique needs and expectations and it is our job and opportunity to learn what their needs are and do our best to serve them. If people are frustrated by our not having music sound tracks in stock, consider offering the My Media Burn Bar as a solution. If people want to make their Bibles more personal, offer Bible imprinting. If people want special orders mailed to their homes, consider using Spring Arbor’s Mail-to-Home options. At the end of each day, ask yourself, “Have I met peoples’ needs today?”, not just “Have my sales increased?” By serving peoples’ needs you will increase your sales.

4. Be Community Focused – ultimately God places each of our stores in unique community settings. To be honest with you, our stores did not really begin to grow in any significant way until we began to understand our community and its specific needs. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
  • What really matters to my customers?
  • How can I make heart connections with the people I serve?
  • What is going on in my community that I need to get involved in as an advocate?
  • How can I make “local” a strength for my ministry, not a weakness?
5. Stop Trying to Be All things to All People – this may sound unbiblical, but the reality is that we cannot achieve that goal and trying to do so will dilute our particular DNA. If each of us focuses on the customers that God has given us and work to serve them effectively, we will survive this economic downturn and I believe that we will grow again. Our CLC stores have recognized that serving urban communities is a part of our DNA, serving the academic/seminary community is not. As Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great”, advocates we must focus on our “one thing” that makes us special. (I guess that goes with the specialty store category that our stores are a part of). I love the idea of being a place that a smaller group of people LOVE to come to rather than a place that lots of people HAVE to go to.

6. Do Events That Matter – events are the lifeblood of effective Christian retail stores. Yes I did say that. They are THE proven method for driving traffic and bringing people back to your stores again and again. Over the years we have done many events and have tried to stretch our creative muscles. Some of these events were more successful than others. Customers today are very busy people who do not have time to attend just “any kind” of event anymore. These events must be meaningful and targeted. Consider some of the following:
  • Kids reading times for weary moms who need a break and some new resources for their energetic toddlers to be blessed by.
  • Bible reference workshops for people that are not sure how to study the Bible and the tools that are available to them.
  • Sunday school and VBS workshops with NEW ideas for teachers to consider.
  • Gatekeeper Breakfasts for Administrative Professionals in the church who often make buying decsions and are not often appreciated for all that they do
7. Empower Your Customers to be Altruistic – people really do want to give back and make a difference with their lives. What better place to do that than in our stores. Try any of the following ideas to get started:
  • Do a used Christian book drive to collect books for prisoners or Christians in your community that cannot afford to purchase books at full retail – have a celebration event to thank those who gave.
  • Do a Bible Trade In Trade Up Sale – offer 25% off to anyone who brings in their old Bible and buys a new one one. Consider offering a free Bible imprint to make the Bible that much more personal and let the customer know who you will be giving their old Bible to – e.g. Prisoners, people in third world countries,etc.
  • Be a World Vision sponsor location
  • Get Involved with Samaritan’s Purse’s “Operation Christmas Child” program or Angel Tree project
8. Know Your Books – this may sound obvious, but it is not that simple. Our customers trust us to do an effective job in selecting and recommending books that they want and need to read. Too often we get bogged down in the doing of Christian retail to even read the books ourselves. This is a key reason, I believe, that we have lost some of our core customers who have depended on us for trusted recommendations over the years. We must hire “book people” and be “book people” if we are to run thriving bookstores. With all of the blog sites and book reviews on line, we have no excuse. At least we can agree to read these and have a general idea about key titles. In the end though, there is no substitute for the regular discipline (and joy) of reading books from cover to cover on a regular basis.

9. Don’t Give Up On Music (Yet) – this may be my most controversial recommendation yet. With the plummeting of overall music sales, it would be easy to assume that music is no longer relevant or important in the future of Christian retail stores. I did some research in our stores recently and discovered to my amazement that music still makes up 12% of our sales and is still larger than our card and gift sales. That may not be true in every store and may be a unique reality in an urban setting, but we have not abandoned music yet. Instead we have introduced CD-track burning on site and continue to host in-store music events with local, regional and national artists(not as often as before). As long as we have a viable music platform to sell, we will continue to do so as music reaches people in a deep and different way than books alone.

10. Ministry Must Come Before Money – note I did not say that ministry must be done instead of business. We must do our business with excellence or we will not have a ministry to do. I, however, would like to turn that commonly quoted statement around and say the opposite as well. If we do not foster relational ministry in our stores we will not have real Christian businesses. That may not be a true statement if measured in dollars and cents only, but from an eternal perspective, a Christian retail store without a heart of ministry is a hollow and possibly even dangerous thing indeed. It has always amazed me in CLC how focusing on ministry has economic by-products as well. People that are ministered to and whose lives have been changed as a result will often become our best customers.
Keywords: thrive, development, market, new media, community, events, books, music, ministry, money
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