Struggling,” challenging,” “difficult”—these are the words used to characterize the current state of Christian retailing. It’s a story that has unfolded over the past 10 to 15 years, mirroring what general-interest indies experienced earlier—hundreds of stores closing and a shrinking cohort of booksellers.

The downward spiral began when, in the early 1990s, the new chain bookstores began to carry Christian books in significant numbers. While once Christian bookstores were the only places these books could be found, suddenly sales were siphoned off as Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million began to stock bestsellers like the Left Behind series and Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life, as well as popular genres like prairie romances. Wal-Mart, Costco, and Sam’s Club also got into the act, selling top titles at prices Christian specialty stores couldn’t match. It was great news for publishers, but a death knell for many stores.

Another body blow was the loss of the music segment of their business to digital downloads. Music once brought in a significant percentage of the revenue at the average Christian store, with some having up to 50% of their inventory in music. When those sales went away, so did many stores.

In 2007 CBA claimed 2,400 members (though only 1,600 of those were independents); this year the number given was 1,100, but CBA has changed its method of counting so each chain is a single member. Off the record, some publishers say there are fewer than 900 viable accounts left.

As the market changed, retailers adopted different strategies and structures. The for-profit, non-denominationally affiliated chain Family Christian Stores launched in 1993, and until 2002 it grew primarily through acquisitions of independent stores; now it expands by relocating stores and building new ones. Baptist Book Stores (affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention) rebranded as LifeWay Christian Stores in 1998 and broadened its stock. Indies banded together in marketing groups that offer different elements of strength in numbers—branding, a bigger Web presence, catalogue production, and, in the case of the 500-member Munce Marketing Group, old-fashioned, small-scale regional buying shows. The oldest of the marketing groups, the Parable Group, now has 140 independent member stores. In 2008 it acquired Lemstone, the only Christian franchise, and now has 40 franchise stores that carry the Parable name.

CBA itself has downsized—in 2009, Curtis Riskey was named interim executive director (that appointment became permanent in 2010); the organization cut staff and sold its headquarters building in Colorado Springs, Colo. The winter trade show, CBA Expo, was eliminated in 2007, and the summer show, the International Christian Retail Show, has become smaller.

CBA continues to launch new programs and initiatives to help its member stores and the industry overall. Among the newest cited by Riskey are the group-discount program with Snap Retail to provide social media and digital marketing capabilities, as well as Christian Store Week (Oct. 1–10), a campaign to raise awareness of local stores through appearances by authors and musical artists, and sale of an exclusive CD that raises funds for World Vision. Earlier this month CBA sent its members a document entitled “Post Borders Growth Strategy,” with tips on how Christian stores might get some of that business (see p. 14).

Cliff Bartow, president and CEO of Family, which has 283 stores with two more opening, thinks store attrition has slowed, “because so many have closed, and the survivors are better business people.” He added, “The challenges Christian retailers face are no different than those of other bookstores or retailers. Everyone has to do the basics better.”

Steve Potratz, president of the Parable Group, also owns a bookstore in San Luis Obispo, Calif. To stay in business, Potratz said, “We must use all available technology. For my store and for our member stores, we’re doing ‘business claiming,’ making sure Internet databases recognize and list local stores” and that store information is corrected and updated. Parable also sends business information to GPS systems.

George Thomsen manages Harvest Christian Books in Costa Mesa, Calif., as well as serving as the chair of the CBA board. Aside from “improving efficiencies and driving out costs” for the church-owned, nonprofit store, Thomsen told PW, “We make a huge effort to take advantage of publisher specials and promotions.” He added, “We have also gone after Internet sales, book fairs, and event sales. While we are a church store, we have gone after other church sales as well.”

Like all booksellers, Parable is working on ways for its stores to get into the digital space. “We foresee the customer in our stores being able to, for instance, buy two e-books for themselves and two physical books to give as gifts in the same transaction. Maybe we would give the customer an authorization code to access the e-books after they purchase them. We’re working on that,” he said. Unlike music, said Family’s Bartow, stores are not shut out of this digital change. “The current [e-books] model does allow for retailer participation, like B&N with the Nook.” And, he pointed out, “Bibles are different from other books when it comes to digitization. Most Christians own 8–12 Bibles, and a digital version will not replace those—it will just be one more format.” Both Parable and Family expect to be selling e-books this fall.

A saving grace for Christian stores may be that books are only one among many products they sell. Said Bartow, “We are lifestyle stores—our inventory goes beyond books, to gifts, apparel, decor.” He also said customers tend to have a special relationship with their local Christian store. “They come in with a specific need—to grow in their faith, share that faith with others, deal with grief and other life milestones. They often don’t know how to find what they need, so that personal relationship is key. And it’s hard to shop for certain things online.”

Bartow noted that one survival strategy for Christian retailers is to carry products a general-interest bookstore or big box would not stock. And while community relations are key for all kinds of bookstores, it is crucial for Christian retailers to cultivate close relationships with local churches, cooperating with them on conferences and events and relying on bulk sales to congregations to plump up the bottom line.

Even church-affiliated, nonprofit stores are not immune to today’s challenges, since they are expected to be self-sustaining. Said communications director Micah Carter, “LifeWay does not receive any church funds. But an advantage we do have is that we can take profits and roll that over into developing resources and creating new efficiencies, instead of having to pay owners or shareholders. LifeWay stores seek to serve the broad evangelical Christian community,” Carter said. “Our own products compete for space in the stores. Whether a product is Baptist-oriented or not is not the basis of our decision to stock it.”

Cokesbury, affiliated with the United Methodist Church and serving it and other mainline Protestant and liturgical faiths, also must be self-sustaining. It rose to a peak number of outlets, 76, in 1999; today, 57 of those locations remain open. Much of Cokesbury’s business has shifted online, said Ed Kowalski, senior v-p of sales and marketing. “We still have a long, viable life,” he said, in part because Cokesbury also sells things like choir robes and pew cushions and “people have to see and touch those.” The chains’ service to specific kinds of churches—with denominational resources and supplies—also helps. Cokesbury recently got the contract to take over store operations at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., “and that’s a wonderful opportunity,” Kowalski said.

Selected Tactical Tips for Christian Retailers in the Post-Borders Market

  • Host community input meetings to discuss publishing trends, availability of titles, online services you offer, and other relevant issues.
  • Ask for input on what your customers would like to see happen at their local Christian store, such as programs, events, special titles/collections, services, classes.
  • Use commonalities you have with your customers to spark conversation and dialog about the role of your store in the community.
  • Brainstorm with your staff.
  • Get your team involved in how to respond to the closings. How will you talk to customers during this period? Can you discover former Borders customers and learn more about what they'd like to see in your store, or how your store might serve them better?
  • Let readers know you're still in the community with local media ads and social media ads.
  • Work with other Christian retailers to create a co-op advertising campaign explaining that your stores are still in the community and serving readers.
  • Accept Borders loyalty cards for your loyalty programs or promotions, or invite readers to transfer to your loyalty program. Offer special incentives to entice the change – show your Borders card and get XX% off, for example.
  • What was your local Borders store doing to compete with your store? Can you emphasize that category or title selection in your store?
  • Participate in Christian Store Week.
  • Watch your inventory and customer requests.
  • Check with your marketing or franchise group about their plans for e-books and begin promoting that to your readers.
  • Check out industry e-book providers to begin the process of capturing your print book readers for your e-book sales.