Christian bookstores, which initially suffered during the onset of Covid-19 but recovered by the end of 2020, are experiencing a strong third quarter of sales this year, due in large part to an increased demand for Bibles and gifts products. And although sales appear promising for the upcoming holiday season, 2022 may present another wave of challenges, one retailer says.
“Sales are up,” says Kevin Fergusen, owner of Willamette Valley Christian Supply store in Albany, Ore. as well as the Christian Outlet store in Centralia, Wash. “We got back into our stores on June 1, 2020, and sales have been increasing since.”
Nevertheless, costs are steadily rising across the board for Fergusen. He cites higher payroll taxes due to the minimum wage increase in Oregon, as well as increases in rent, utilities, and insurance. “Although we are seeing good numbers for a strong fourth quarter, come January, we will see a reversal."
Del Wisdom, who opened Wisdom Books in Kennewick, Wash. on July 10, has seen sales rise each week since. “It’s not a business to get rich quick, or at all,” Wisdom says. “It’s a mission as well as a business, and we are building it rapidly.”
Business has steadied for Lorraine Valk, owner of the Parable Christian Store in St. Joseph, Mich. ‘I haven't seen the sharp spike that many have, but steady traffic has been a true blessing,” she says.
Over the past 18 months, Christian retailers have been able to compete with Amazon and big box stores by offering faster delivery services, curbside pickup, and even scheduling in-store shopping experiences. Many stores are embracing social media and virtual events as marketing tools, while also stocking masks, hand sanitizer, cards, and other creative new products. Vicki Geist, owner of Cedar Springs Christian Store in Knoxville, Tenn., reports that Bibles have had a banner year, while gifts, puzzles, and inspirational cards are also selling well. At the same time, shipping costs and inventory shortages have presented costly challenges to booksellers, and the issues may persist in 2022.
“The consistent order replenishment pipeline has been severely hampered,” says Valk. “Inflated costs from vendors are not easy to absorb, and out of stocks are becoming the norm, not the exception.”
As a result of inventory shortages, Valk teamed up with Kevin Fergusen and Rodney Mackrill, owner of Divine Truth Christian Store in La Vista, Neb., to form KLR Consulting—a store co-op, through which products are bought in bulk and split among them. Products often come from store closeout sales. “Having the right product, at the right time involves planning and foresight,” Valk says. “Today is the day when we need to be more strategic, more swift to execute, and more savvy than ever before.”
Staffing is also a top concern among booksellers, especially since the demands of retail jobs have changed. Like many storeowners around the U.S., Christian booksellers are often faced with aggression from customers over mask requirements. “My staff is battle-worn, and some didn't return,” Valk says. “The abuse that they endured on the frontline from guests on either side of the fence was exhausting. We followed the state guidelines, and finally are getting some relief from being yelled at.”
Throughout the pandemic, the Munce Marketing Group’s biannual Christian Product Expo (CPE) continued its in-person events. Each gathering brought together members of the Christian Retail Association (CRA) as well as authors, media, and other vendors of Christian products.
“Both 2020 shows and our winter 2021 show were down in attendance due to travel restrictions,” says Christy Dollins, trade show and association coordinator at Munce. “But those who were able to attend wore masks, socially distanced, and followed all CDC guidelines.”
And participation at the fall 2021 show (held Aug. 15-17) proved encouraging, says Dollins. Attendance dropped by 37.5% compared to CPE’s most-attended fall 2019 show, but orders written during the show were down a mere 11% from the same time period. “In other words, the stores that attended came to shop,” Dollins says. “Our show attendance is on the rise, and even though there are difficulties, stores and vendors are surviving.”
The next CPE will take place from Feb. 13-15 in Concord, N.C.
Looking ahead, Wisdom Books is gearing up for the Christmas season, and Wisdom anticipates sales to increase anywhere from 25%-40% in December, which “will assure our success for the year,” he says. He is optimistic about 2022 as well, citing strong local support for his store, marketing and advertising initiatives, and a new website launching in the spring.
Valk is grateful for what she calls consistent and loyal customers in her area. “The emphasis on shopping ‘small’ has never been stronger because even the uninformed see the empty storefronts and understand the correlation between support and existence,” she says. “We fought to stay afloat, and we choose to continue to be a blessing in our communities.”
For his part, Fergusen advises Christian retailers in 2022: “Put that money in savings, spend it wisely, be strategic, and when we come into hard days again, be prepared.”
"How things are going now is all we have to go on," says Geist. "This year has been really good. I look forward to 2022 not being any different."