Christian Retail Stores Shelve Old Ideas

By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service
Saturday, July 19, 2008

At Skia, a new Christian bookstore in Bentonville, Ark., there are comfortable chairs, racks of apparel, a coffee and smoothie bar, and a full corner of the store dedicated to building, of all things, skateboards.

"It takes a little while to put together a skateboard, maybe 15 minutes or so," said Skia's co-owner, Bill Beyer. "It gives us an opportunity to talk with the kids and really develop relationships with the kids while we're doing that."

Meeting customers where they are has become the mantra of the Christian retail industry as its stores face stiff competition from big-box chains and online retailers. With more stores closing than opening each year, industry layoffs and a key publisher staying away from this week's annual International Christian Retail Show in Orlando, retailers and publishers say innovation is key to thriving.

In a survival-of-the-fittest atmosphere, stores, publishers and other Christian companies are cutting back and offering new products to appeal to shoppers.

"Christian stores used to be destination stores because . . . they had the dominant selection of product in the marketplace," said Bill Anderson, president and chief executive of CBA (formerly the Christian Booksellers Association), which hosts the annual show.

"And we are teaching them they still must have that, but that alone is not enough. . . . To be a destination store, they have to offer that customer a total shopping experience that is rich and rewarding in and of itself."

The CBA itself is facing changes, with the decision by Thomas Nelson, the country's largest Christian publisher, not to attend the annual CBA expo. Instead, Thomas Nelson held an all-expenses-paid event for its key retailers in April at its headquarters in Nashville.

Last April, Thomas Nelson cut about 10 percent of its staff, after previously deciding to halve the number of new titles this year.

"You don't talk to any retailers that are saying what we need is more books," said Michael Hyatt, president and chief executive of Thomas Nelson, which sells about 35 percent of its products through Christian retailers. "What they're all saying is, 'We need better books.' "

Zondervan, another big Christian publisher, owned by HarperCollins, cut five executive positions and a dozen others as a part of an organization streamlining in May.

At the Orlando show, it introduced Symtio, a digital merchandising system that it hopes will counter competition from online and secular booksellers. Starting this fall, in-store customers can buy a gift card for the book they want and download it at home. They can read it on a computer or a handheld device or listen to an audio book on an MP3 player.

Publishers of Christian greeting cards are also in a transition. DaySpring Cards said last month that it will cut 80 jobs at its headquarters in Siloam Springs, Ark.

But despite all the changes in companies selling and manufacturing products for Christian consumers, religious books continue to do well overall.

The Book Industry Study Group, a publishing trade association, reported in May that sales of religious books had an increase in net revenue of 6.3 percent last year -- a higher figure than the net revenue gain for all publishers of 4.4 percent over 2006.

Lynn Garrett, former senior religion editor at Publishers Weekly, said Christian retailers that have survived the closings and reinvented themselves found ways to distinguish their stores from their secular competitors.

"You might find the newest title of a superstar Christian author at Wal-Mart or at a Borders or Barnes & Noble, but you won't find all of their titles," she said. "That's something that the Christian stores can excel at."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company