Christian retailing, like many U.S. industries, suffered from Covoid-19 shutdowns in the first half of 2020. But two new reports cite heartening news and sales numbers between June and December. While both reports highlight statistics from stores that survived one or more pandemic-fighting lock-downs, neither indicates how many stores never reopened.
The Parable Group’s 2021 State of Christian Retailing: Resilience and Rebound finds that after a precipitous plunge in sales in late spring, 64% of stores managed to increase sales in the last seven months of the year. Between June and December, the average increase in total sales for all stores in the report was slightly less than 1% compared to the same period in the prior year. Strong holiday sales, which were up 4.6% over 2019, helped the year to finish on an upbeat note.
The report, drawn on data reported to Parable Connect by 230 U.S. Christian bookstores, is an analysis of $58 million in sales and 1.7 million consumer receipts. While not in the report, Parable Group president Greg Squires tells PW total sales for the reporting independent stores were down 13% in 2020 compared to 2019.
Squires also tells PW that while the report did not track permanent store closures it does not appear closings spiked in 2020. “We have observed store consolidations and closures for the past several years, a handful at a time. We didn’t see an increase in that in 2020,” he says.
Squires, says, “The fundamental questions we were asking were whether 2020 was good or bad for the stores? When they struggled, were customers loyal? Yes,” According to the report, 87% of booksellers said customers “supported their store in surprising and gratifying ways.” Squires observes, “When customers couldn’t go to their local church they were encouraged and refreshed by finding fellowship in their Christian bookstore.”
A sampling of other findings from the State of Christian Retail Report include:
—Bible sales were up 2.7 points in 2020 over 2019. While they were 8% of units sold, they brought in 23% of the sales dollars.
—Books remained the largest sales category at stores with a 35% market share. Devotionals, Bible study, and fiction categories each increased their market share, while Christian living, pastoral helps, and women's books lost share.
—81% of retailers reported that they promoted phone orders and curbside pickup during the disruption.
—Homeschooling materials, while a small portion of the whole, showed a 68% in sales over the prior year, reflecting school closures and parents’ scramble for resources for their kitchen-table students.
Ultimately, says Squires, the question was whether “stores were severely affected by these severe times? The answer is, no, they were not, on the whole, severely affected. ” Indeed, the number of retailers calling on Parable’s marketing services and websites grew in 2020 as stepped-up marketing and online sales were lifelines for retailers, he says.
Squires also calculates that stores may even be more profitable today. Many have cut their hours back and lost staff during lockdowns due to layoffs, furloughs, and health concerns, and employees who sought other jobs. “Yes, some are struggling but others are doing more with lower operating costs,” he says.
In the report, retailers say their top concern for 2021 is for cash to buy more inventory followed by the need for more engaged staff aligned with their Christian mission.
A separate survey report issued this month, the Christian Retail Association 2020 Annual Report, from the CRA led by Bob Munce, the owner of Munce Marketing Group, showed similar findings with its own upbeat flourishes.
Based on a January 18 survey of 82 Christian retailers:
— 87% said they forecast a “healthy strong future” or that they would hold “steady’” and “carry on” even though three in four stores were closed for weeks in 2020. Compare that to 2019 when only 75% said they were that optimistic about the year to come.
— By the end of last year, 22 stores saw an increase in sales, 54 were down and six were flat.
— Many stores will continue offering sales via website, phone orders, and curbside pickups that became popular during the long months of “no-contact” commerce.
The challenges of 2020 won’t be forgotten in 2021, however: 27 stores indicated to the CRA they plan to continue selling masks and 30 will carry on offering hand sanitizer.