Maybe Starbucks is on to something. The Parable Group, a marketing consortium for some 223 independent Christian bookstores, in the belief that a consistent presentation of product reassures the consumer, is moving to franchising and national branding. Parable members can participate in the franchise program—which will offer corporate training, advertising and other services—or they can opt to continue with just the current program. Stores that do participate will have the choice of changing their name to Parable or combining Parable with their store name.

The program aims to bolster Christian indies, which, like their trade brethren, are increasingly endangered by competition from the major chains, warehouse clubs, online retailers and Christian chains.

Apparently not all Parable members are thrilled with the decision to franchise. Since the beginning of the year, "at least six" Parable stores have jumped to rival Munce Marketing Group, according to Munce COO Kirk Blank, who emphasized that the primary reason for the exodus was not wanting to participate in franchising. Munce, which now has 596 independent stores in its marketing consortium—up by nearly 100 stores in the past three years—provides services similar to Parable's. Blank said Munce aims to add 250 to 300 stores in the next three years; the group is being particularly aggressive in proselytizing Hispanic and African-American Christian consumers.

Still, many longtime Parable members are on board for the new venture. Jim Kregel, president of Kregel Inc. and owner of three Kregel Bookstores in the Grand Rapids, Mich., area, said that franchising is the current trend. "If you go on a trip and pull over for a meal, and you see Pat's Diner or the Olive Garden, you're going to choose the Olive Garden. You know the level of service and the product you're getting." Kregel's stores will adopt a hybrid store name by May of this year, with signage reading "Kregel: Parable Christian Stores."

Despite the success of franchising in many other areas of retailing, bookstore franchising in the U.S. remains as rare as a Gutenberg Bible. Parable's main franchise competitor is Lemstone, which has some 32 franchised Christian bookstores. In general book retailing, near-defunct Little Professor was the only long-lasting franchising program of recent years.

After the franchise conversions are underway, Parable will start to open Parable stores in untapped markets. New franchisees will receive "store-in-a-box" treatment, with turnkey systems, signage, fixtures, training from Parable staff and access to Parable's extensive marketing data, which tracks individual consumers' purchases and responses to coupons and catalogues. Several years down the road, Parable plans to place kiosks in large churches across the nation. Parable is aiming eventually to have 1,500 Parable retail franchisees, including kiosks. "It's not an unrealistic number if the church store component is there," said Parable founder and CEO Steve Potratz.

Parable has hired a branding consultant—the same firm that created the Saturn brand—to research consumer tastes and explore how Parable can position itself as a national brand. Parable is also joining with Multnomah Publishers in national radio spots that are part of Multnomah's ParableBig Change Moments program. On this program, CBA authors like Bruce Wilkinson, Ryan Dobson, Joni Eareckson Tada and Henry Blackaby talk about their books in 60-second radio spots that are heard by an estimated 40 million listeners per week on more than 800 radio stations.

The Parable Group was born in 1985, when another independent Christian retailer stopped by Potratz's Christian store in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and was so impressed by Potratz's sophisticated marketing that he asked Potratz to do a catalogue for him. Twenty years and 319 million catalogues later, Parable offers a variety of services to Christian indies.

Potratz said he believes the branding and franchising efforts will help independent Christian stores thrive in the current retail climate. "The brand always wins," he said. "Unity will allow us to have competitive prices. When we buy together from a single inventory source, that's cheaper and more efficient. On the other hand, having stores be locally owned means that stores can maintain their own personalities and adjust their orders based on the local market. Stores can remain independent while having the trust, values and rewards that come with being a big chain."