With the loss of more than 400 Christian retail outlets in two years, ABA stores could see additional sales opportunities as former customers look for new ways to buy faith-based books. Family Christian Stores closed all 270 of its outlets in 2017, and LifeWay announced in March its intention to close all 170 of its bricks-and-mortar stores by the end of the year. The closures do not reflect diminished sales of Christian books, however. Revenue for religious presses was up 14% in 2018 over 2017, according to the AAP, and some indie stores are already taking steps to capture sales.
“Indie booksellers do have an opportunity, yet it needs to be supported with strategies to curate a selection and promote it to let customers know we are here to serve them,” says Donna Paz Kaufman, a bookstore trainer and consultant who owns Story & Song Bookstore Bistro in Fernandina Beach, Fla.
Kaufman says she is working to let customers know that the store is adding to its Christian books and Bible selections via email blasts and by hosting events with Christian authors. Nevertheless, Kaufman points out two key challenges booksellers must face to effectively promote their religious books: understanding the products and finding ways to reach evangelical customers. “We need resources to help us not only identify new books, but essential backlist, too,” she says. “For Bibles, we need to know how to special order the right one. All of the features—highlights, covers, notes, study guides—make this a time-consuming special order.”
Bill Westfall, v-p of sales at Barbour Publishing, says indie stores could seize the sales opportunity by adding shelf space for religion books. “ABA stores could increase awareness that they carry faith-based products by expanding the category, relocating it to a more prominent location in their store, or by adding additional signage to call out the category,” he says.
Westfall also notes that outreach to local churches, as well as effective use of social media, can help bookstores boost awareness of their religion sections, and that information about what titles to stock can be drawn from bestseller lists such as the ECPA’s, as well as PW’s Religion Bestsellers.
In addition to bestsellers lists, senior director of sales and marketing at IVP Justin Paul Lawrence suggests that ABA booksellers consult sales reps at Noble Marketing and Genesis Marketing who specialize in Christian publishing. He adds that ABA stores could also move into the Christian market by supplying study materials and other resources to local churches. “Many of these books are available from Ingram or other wholesalers, but often the publishers have low minimums or free shipping on bulk orders, too,” he says.
The Ingram/Spring Arbor marketing team, which focuses on the Christian market, is reaching out to indie stores near LifeWay locations and offering them inventory lists. Shawn Everson, chief commercial officer at Ingram, says that Ingram would like to show ABA booksellers how to stay in tune with LifeWay customers who like to shop in bricks-and-mortar stores. “Independents can rally,” he says. “Christian product is in high demand; they can look at what products LifeWay carried that they don’t and start carrying them.”
In addition to targeting LifeWay readers, indies can look for LifeWay employees. Christian Retail Association president Bob Munce suggests that indie stores approach LifeWay store managers both for product insight and for potential employment. “Well-trained staff is hard to find, and a LifeWay employee’s knowledge of local church accounts that buy curriculum and church supplies could also help,” he says.
Once LifeWay’s going-out-of-business sales come to an end, replacement stores will be needed, says Tom Knight, senior v-p of sales at HarperCollins Christian Publishing. “There are millions of shoppers who still desire the tangible experience of choosing a book or Bible,” he says. “For both Christian and ABA indies, there lies a real opportunity for stores to appeal to the customers who have been dedicated to LifeWay retail stores for so many years.”
Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, agrees. “I would hope bookstores in communities where LifeWay is closing will look at their market and reach out to that community to try to see if there’s a void they could fill,” he says. “I think it would behoove indie booksellers in those communities to take a closer look.”