On Nov. 5, the United Methodist Publishing House announced it would begin closing its 38 full-line stores and 19 seminary bookstores, in order to sell books exclusively through its Web site, Cokesbury.com, its Cokesbury Call Center, at conferences and meetings, and through church events.

The board of directors of UMPH cited growing sales through those channels and declining sales in its physical stores as the reason for the move. A recent survey by the organization revealed only 15 percent of customers purchasing books in the stores.

Cokesbury differs from the other Christian chains, since its primary market has always been churches, while chains like Family Christian Stores and Lifeway are more focused on the individual consumer, noted Neil Alexander, UMPH president and publisher. In the fiscal year ending July 31, of a total of $85 million in revenues, 30% came from stores, 40% from the call center and events, 18% from Cokesbury.com, and 12% wholesale to trade.

Alexander told PW that over the past 5 years they had closed 21 stores (from a peak of 76 in 1999) based on individual store performance. “If a store had been in the red for more than a year, we shut it down,” he said. The seminary stores “had always been a break-even proposition at best, and part of the reason we had those was to establish ourselves as a brand with the students.” Used textbook sales, the move to e-books, and the decline in seminary students all negatively affected those stores.

In addition to books, Cokesbury has always done a good business in choir robes and other church articles that customers want to see and feel. Alexander said the stepped-up church events channel—what he called “resource fairs”—would allow church staff to select choir robes first hand, and also expose them to new products, such as curriculum. He also noted that “with digital enhancements, people can see those better on our Web site.” UMPH is increasing its field sales staff fourfold, to 42. “Those will be our people on the ground, and allow for up-close and personal interaction with churches.”

UMPH has created a “transition initiative” called Cokesbury/Next to redirect customers to the four non-store channels while it closes its brick-and-mortar outlets. In a statement, UMPH said, “Cokebury is taking steps to ensure the well-being of store personnel…. The ministry will assist them in the transition, providing both severance packages and job search services.”

The first store closing will be in St. Louis on January 12, 2013, and the last is slated no later than April 30, 2013. A schedule of closing dates will be posted on www.cokesburynext.com as they are finalized.