Though there are no industry figures to confirm just how big the non-book segment is for evangelical Christian bookstores (the Christian Booksellers Association is currently researching how to more accurately track sales among its member stores), the retailers PW spoke with for this article are confident that non-book merchandise--chiefly video, but also audio, games and toys--generates both revenue and traffic.
The children's product area is so important that CBA developed the Think Kids First! program to educate retailers about it. Nearly two years old now, Think Kids First! "is a way for suppliers to pool their resources and help raise awareness of children's product," according to Christina Elliot, category development coordinator at CBA. She says the "25 or so" member suppliers range from giants like W, Zondervan, Tyndale and Tommy Nelson to smaller outfits such as Betty Lukens Inc., a manufacturer of biblical felt storyboards. The group has created a resource manual for retailers on how to run a good children's department and now offers its members training camps and seminars that cover industry trends.
While professional affiliations are a plus, any retailer would do well to follow the valuable, perhaps obvious, selling strategy of Cheryl Greene, children's product specialist for Parable Christian Stores, an association of 330 independent retailers. "I always try to keep up with what is new out there and then show people the alternatives we have to offer them," Greene says.
When it comes to children's non-book product in Christian bookstores, video is far and away the category leader. Figures released on July 6 by SoundScan and the Christian Music Trade Association show that Christian video sales for the first half of 2001 represent a 14% increase over the same period in 2000. And in the children's video arena an unusual crew of characters--talking vegetables, space-traveling penguins and a Scripture-citing superhero--have inspired the bestsellers of the past year: the VeggieTales and 3-2-1 Penguins series are both from Big Idea Productions, and the Bibleman series is from Pamplin Entertainment.
According to Lori Miles, children's product buyer for the 345 Family Christian Stores across the country, "Video is our largest non-book area. It actually does better than children's books in our stores." She names VeggieTales, 3-2-1 Penguins and Bibleman as the most popular video series for the chain, noting "they all sell wonderfully for us." Greene, speaking for Parable Christian Stores, reports similar performances from the same three properties, and CBA bestseller lists and comments from several individual stores also bear out those results.
Who knew that animated produce could pack such a punch? Back in 1993, computer wiz and storyteller Phil Vischer believed that kids and their families would flock to computer-animated, values-based stories--as performed by talking vegetables with a sense of humor. The result was Where's God When I'm S-Scared?, the first video in the VeggieTales series from Lombard, Ill.-based Big Idea. In the years since, Big Idea has become big business in Christian bookstores, and VeggieTales a powerhouse brand among retailers in general. The 15 VeggieTales video titles currently available have garnered sales of more than 22 million units to date and hold 10 of the 20 slots on CBA's video bestseller list for August. VideoScan and SoundScan rank VeggieTales as the number-one direct-to-video series for children as well.
"The core theme of the VeggieTales titles--'Sunday morning values, Saturday morning fun'--is really consistent with what families are looking for today," says Mary Manz Simon, a consultant for CBA who specializes in children's books. "The videos have made an emotional connection by providing entertainment on many levels. Parents like them as well as children do, and technically they are very well done. I'd stack them up against any secular product out there and they'd come out a winner."
As the Big Idea videos gained a foothold with fans over the past several years (mainly through Christian stores), the secular market was quick to jump on the Veggie cart. Mass market retailers like Kmart and Wal-Mart now carry VeggieTales items, and Hallmark (wrapping paper, greeting cards) and Fisher-Price (toys) are two of the major VeggieTales licensees. In fact, VeggieTales videos no longer have an exclusive sales window in Christian bookstores, but arrive in all outlets simultaneously. Miles of Family Christian Stores says that because of this new development "we've been hit pretty hard, as some of our customers have chosen to buy the new titles at the discount stores." She notes that although her stores have seen a video slowdown, the VeggieTales brand is still very strong.
Many people are counting on VeggieTales to remain dominant, too. Next February, the Veggie Tales Live! touring stage show, produced in conjunction with Clear Channel Entertainment (formerly SFX), will kick off a 40-week run with an opening performance in Minneapolis. In addition, production has begun on the company's first feature film, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, which is due out in 2002.
Big Idea is off to an equally big start with its newest series, 3-2-1 Penguins, about twin siblings who learn biblical lessons from some fantastic--and very funny--penguin space travelers. The first video, 3-2-1 Penguins: Trouble on Planet Wait-Your-Turn, was released to almost instant success in November 2000 and is still available exclusively from Christian retailers. The latest entry, The Cheating Scales of Bullamanka, arrived in Christian bookstores on July 20 and is already selling very well.
At the moment, the strongest competition for Big Idea's titles is Bibleman, a live-action series from Pamplin Entertainment starring Willie Aames (of Eight Is Enough and Charles in Charge fame) as the caped crusader, à la Batman, who vanquishes bad guys by quoting Scripture to them and brandishing a lighted Sword of Truth. "Boys, especially the action-figure crowd [roughly ages 5-10], love him," says Greene of the Parable Group. "I think the video success goes hand-in-hand with the popularity of Willie's live show and appearances," she adds. "He's just terrific in person. Willie meets every single kid in line and he'll talk to them forever. These videos also grow and adapt with the times--Willie and the producers really know where kids are today."
Recent hit titles include Bibleman Adventure: Breaking the Bonds of Disobedience and Conquering the Wrath of Rage. The adventures are expected to reach an even greater audience with the introduction of Biblegirl, a new character who made her debut on Disobedience, released in June. Pamplin continues in the action-adventure vein with Agents of Truth, a series that debuted in April with Rescue Team Alpha.
Though not sitting atop bestseller lists, the new Adventures in Odyssey animated video series from Tyndale Kids/Tyndale Entertainment/Focus on the Family has been racking up respectable numbers in the Christian video market as well. The first two titles, The Last Days of Eugene Meltsner (fall 2000) and Escape from the Forbidden Matrix (Feb. 2001), have sold more than 100,000 units combined. An Adventures in Odyssey Value Pack containing both videos for $14.99 was just released in August.
Brentwood Kids (a division of Brentwood Records) has also entered the video ring with two recent animated series produced in conjunction with Treetop Studios: Tails from the Ark and The Kingdom Under the Sea, both containing "wacky" animal characters and biblical lessons.
Video Coming Attractions
Booksellers are awaiting several promising fall video titles. First up are VeggieTales: The Ultimate Silly Song Countdown (Sept.) and 321 Penguins:The Amazing Carnival of Complaining (Nov.) from Big Idea. Gnoo Zoo: In Search of the Great White Tiger, a September release from Children of Faith, distributed by Tommy Nelson, is first in a series of videos created by singer, author and featured Women of Faith conference speaker Sheila Walsh. The series will be supported by a major marketing push including a 20-plus-city Children of Faith/ Gnoo Zoo touring Christmas show, debuting in Nashville on November 23. Integrity Music will produce audio recordings inspired by the series.
Also from Tommy Nelson comes Mary Lou's Flip Flop Shop, starring Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton. The live-action video, which is first in a new series, encourages movement and creativity. The Tommy Nelson production Dr. Laura Presents God's Top Ten features the controversial talk show host's introduction to the Ten Commandments for kids.
In October, ZonderKids releases The Legend of the Candy Cane, an animated video based on the popular picture book by Lori Walburg, illustrated by James Bernardin, about the religious symbolism of the holiday candy. Actors Florence Henderson, Ossie Davis, Tom Bosley and Malcolm-Jamal Warner are among those providing voice talent.
Cheryl Greene of Parable anticipates solid showings from the new Discovery Team series for kids six to 12 from Gospel Communications. The first two titles--A Jurassic Ark Mystery and Six Short Days, One Big Adventure--were released in August and promoted at the recent CBA convention. With a blend of live-action, animatronics and special effects, these videos explore "biblical truth about God and the world around us." As an example, Jurassic Ark offers archaeological information on dinosaurs and also poses the question of whether the extinct beasts were on the Ark.
Music--praise songs and other children's song collections to be precise--is the preferred children's audio purchase in Christian bookstores. "I've seen the music area grow quite a bit in the last couple of years," notes Lori Miles of Family Christian Stores. Miles says the Cedarmont Kids collection--value-priced recordings of children singing everything from hymns to Sunday school songs to lullabies--has "always done very well." The Cedarmont collection boasts total sales of more than seven million units, and the company claims its titles are "the number-one selling Christian children's music in the world." They rank behind only Disney on Billboard's children's music chart. Other popular titles in the children-singing genre include Songtime Kids: Bible Songs from Spring Hill Music/Chordant and Big Songs for Little Kids: I Feel Like Dancing from Brentwood Kids. Tyndale entered the bargain-music fray last year with its Kidz Tunz line, consisting of seven volumes of Bible songs and two recordings of Christmas carols, all sung by children. The newest Kids Tunz title, Moonlight Beams and Peaceful Dreams, a collection of bedtime songs, is due out in October.
Midpriced (roughly $9.99) titles Top 25 Kids Praise Songs from Maranatha Music, Shout to the Lord Kids from Integrity Kids Music and Steve Green's Hide 'em in Your Heart line of Bible songs from Sparrow Records have also been strong performers. "Kids' audio just doesn't do well at $16.98," says Miles. Greene of Parable agrees. "The bargain lines do best for us in kids' music," she adds. And as could be expected, VeggieTunes, Big Idea's audio line, is an across-the-board hit with Christian children's music shoppers.
Children's audiobooks and other spoken-word audio titles, however, are barely a blip on the Christian bookstore radar. "We don't carry a lot of audiobooks, and what is out there has not done well," says Miles. CBA consultant Simon adds, "Spoken-word audio has never caught on in this market, except for some bedtime/sleepytime titles which seem to be a mini-niche." Pat Henry, bookstore consultant for the Ark Bookstore in Denver, comments, "We have very few books on audiotape, only a handful. Parents seem to be more focused on videos now."
The biggest exception to this trend is the four-CD recording Left Behind: The Kids Live Action Audio Volume 1, which has sold 25,000 copies since its September 2000 release. The title contains radio-drama-style recordings of four Left Behind: The Kids novels, the children's version of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins's wildly popular book series for adults. At Berean Book Store in Springfield, Ill., department head Chris Orwig reports that sales of Left Behind: The Kids are second only to those of recordings of C.S. Lewis's classic Chronicles of Narnia series from HarperChildren's Audio, and Focus on the Family Radio Theater/Tyndale Kids will release Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the fifth of Lewis's Chronicles, in October.
Tommy Nelson's Wild and Wacky True Bible Stories, a bargain-priced line containing performances by author and storyteller Frank Peretti, and the value-priced six-episode packs of Adventures in Odyssey radio-drama episodes, sell well for Parable Christian Stores, according to Greene. All About Christmas, a collection of four holiday Bible stories, is next in the Wild and Wacky series and is slated for an October release. New Adventures in Odyssey Amazing Stories include favorite episodes grouped by theme, including the titles Honesty and Peer Pressure, which are among the six recordings being released in October.
Broadman & Holman blends music and spoken word on its new Dove Signature Series of picture books adapted from Dove Award-winning Christian songs. The debut titles in the line, Thank You, inspired by the Ray Boltz tune of the same name, and The Great Adventure, based on Steven Curtis Chapman's song, arrived in Christian bookstores in August. Each hardcover is packaged with a CD which contains a narration of the story and a version of the song, sung by the Wonder Kids Choir.
The Holy Games in Town
"We have a strong game market in our stores," says Miles of Family Christian Stores. She cites Bibleopoly from Late for the Sky, Bible Challenge by Cook Communications, Bible Mad Gab from Patch Products and Bible Outburst from Cactus Game Design as some of the most requested. Cactus Game Design is also the maker of the hottest game in Christian bookstores right now: Redemption. The trading card game is "like Pokémon cards but with biblical characters and themes," says Greene of Parable. The game consists of starter sets and themed booster packs of cards (Warriors, The Prophets, The Women, The Apostles) for playing, collecting and trading. Greene and others are anticipating the October release of a Redemption board game, Solomon's Temple, which will come packaged with two exclusive trading cards. Jason O'Rourke of Shepherd's Connection Bookstore in Leavenworth, Kans., likes the game so much that his store hosts Redemption tournaments, and O'Rourke has even purchased stock in the company. Pat Henry of the Ark Bookstore in Denver says her store sells "mostly board games and mostly at Christmas," but also mentions Redemption as being very popular with her customers. Greene has similar comments, noting that for the most part "games are seasonal and do best at Christmas" in member stores.
As for the toy category, bookseller responses are all over the map, with a couple of obvious front-runners. "The VeggieTales toys from Fisher-Price--the Larrymobile, the characters--have been great for us," says Miles. And, as one would expect, the Bibleman phenomenon has spawned a bevy of superhero spinoffs. Booksellers are doing very well with Bibleman action figures as well as the Bibleman cape, mask and sword from Pamplin. Greene, among others, plans to pitch the Bibleman accessories and the forthcoming Biblegirl costume as Christian alternatives for trick-or-treating. The Pride & Joy line of praying dolls from DSI Toys is a good seller in Family Christian Stores, and plush is a strong item across the board, though no specific item was a standout. Miles explains that several companies may produce versions of some generic plush items, like a musical lamb that plays "Jesus Loves Me." "Since our stores are such a large market we can bring in a lot of specialty items and create our own plush or gift items," Miles says. This Christmas, Family Christian Stores will be featuring a snowman theme and a new gift/plush line, but she could not share further details at press time.
All in all, the outlook for the non-book segment is a bright one. With top brands continuing to grow and some newer lines making a good showing, it appears Christian bookstores can expect rosy sales ahead, for the holiday season and beyond.