A survey shows the economy is also impacting Christian retailers, with dropping sales and closed doors.
Jan Keller of the Mustard Seed Bookstore in Fairhills Mall in Springfield, Ill., says loyalty among her customers for Christian merchandise is still there — but it’s not like it used to be.
“There are those who want to support local stores,” she says, “but the bottom line is that it’ll come down to pricing.”
So while some customers are still shopping for inspirational books by Max Lucado, Christian fiction by authors such as Karen Kingsbury and Beverly Lewis, or copies of the Bible, the economic downturn hasn’t spared the $4.6 billion Christian retail business.
According to the annual “State of the Industry” survey, net sales dropped nearly 11 percent in 2008. Nationally, 91 Christian stores closed their doors last year. Christianretailing.com reports that 81 percent of Christian bookstores and other retailers are looking to reduce expenses in 2009.
Some stores simply did not want to talk about it. A spokesperson for Family Christian Stores, a national chain, declined to answer questions on the record.
Storeowners who did discuss the economic landscape contend they’re holding their own.
But industry experts say the wolf is still at the door in the guise of big-box stores such as Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble, which have fragmented the Christian retail industry. Christian retailers — just like independent bookstores and other businesses — are also dealing with Internet giants such as Amazon.com, which is known for its pricing and convenience.
Setting the stores apart
Retailers’ success might be reflected in their deeper catalogs, their product knowledge, and, in The Mustard Seed’s case, pricing.
In 2007, the Springfield store, which specializes in religious goods, Bibles and books, moved to Fairhills Mall and re-invented itself as an “outlet store.”
So far, the move has had mixed results on the store’s bottom line, Keller says.
“Right now, it’s tough to tell what’s the economy and what’s the new location,” says Keller, whose parents, Paul and Rosemary Lawler, started the store in 1975.
Foot traffic hasn’t been what Keller had hoped. But the rent is cheaper, and she said the “outlet” marketing “appeals to people. They’re looking for bargains and sales, even if it’s 10 percent off.”
The store, Keller explains, has “front list,” or best-selling books and recordings. Along with that, the store purchases “skids,” or overstock items, from publishers that allow Mustard Seed to sell at discount prices.
For the St. John Fisher Forum in Jacksonville, Ill., the product base includes a decidedly orthodox Catholic lineup of authors: G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, along with German philosopher Josef Pieper or essayist Hilaire Belloc.
“People come into our store, and they know it’s solid,” says Patricia Dailey, who began the retail side with her husband, Dr. John Dailey, in 2001. “A lot of stores don’t carry authors like that because they don’t sell big.”
Patricia Dailey admits the store, which grew out of a popular Catholic speakers forum at the University of Illinois Springfield, is “more of an apostolate. We’re not trying to make a living this way. If we had been, we would have only been open two weeks.”
She says about 60 percent of its business comes from individual sales at conferences, such as the Midwest Catholic Family Conference this summer in Wichita, Kan. Despite the economy, attendance doubled from last year, Dailey says. That bodes well for next year’s conference in St. Louis.
It’s been a busy summer at The Marian Center in Springfield, says Tom Shrewsbury, who has volunteered at the store since shortly after it opened in late 1987.
Among other items, the store carries baptism, confirmation and first communion gifts, though its clientele isn’t exclusively Catholic, he says.
Normally, summer is the slowest time business-wise, but traffic in the store has been up, he notes.
Jim Seybert, an expert in Christian retail marketing from Pismo Beach, Calif., says times are tough for specialty stores.
The likelihood, he says, is that “the typical Christian shopper will go to the Internet first,” drawn by back catalogs, convenience and free shipping.
Many others are spending their money where they shop for other things.
Stores such as Wal-Mart began their forays into the Christian market earlier in the decade, when “The Prayer of Jabez” became a best-selling hardback and “The Left Behind” series (thrillers based on the Book of Revelations) went mainstream, Seybert says.
“They already had (evangelical Christians shopping) in their stores. Wal-Mart did what it’s smart at,” he says.
So while some shoppers like picking up a Christian novel at the same place where they can buy a saw or sandals, a Christian retailer can set itself apart with selection, atmosphere and a staff that knows its products, Seybert said.
“Atmosphere was a huge motivator,” Seybert says. “You’re talking about a group of people who not only consume the same product, but have the same beliefs. It goes deeper than just product.But those motivators are only valuable if the customer sees values in them.”
Tom Shrewsbury of The Marian Center says the store is on a first-name basis with a bulk of its customers.
“You try to treat them as friends,” Shrewsbury says. “We try to provide that special service. People recognize that it’s a not-for-profit store, so that (makes a difference with them.)”
State Journal-Register writer Steven Spearie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.