Soul-searching amid the shelves

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2010

In the busy aisles of the Potomac Adventist Book & Health Food Store, Dori Wooten made her way past the crystal crucifixes, books on biblical finance and scripture-embossed license plate frames in search of something profound to give for Christmas.

With a child in college and student loans of her own to repay, money is extremely tight this year for the churchgoing single mother of four from Mount Rainier. So Wooten, 37, was looking at the whole holiday gift-giving endeavor with a sharper eye.

"It gets you to focus when there isn't money," said Wooten, who works in a library. "What was I giving my kids before? What was I putting value on before?"

How shoppers such as Wooten answer such questions is being intensely dissected by the $4.6 billion Christian retailing industry, which is in a state of, well, soul-searching.

Although religious retail tends to be more resilient during tough economic times, the market is in tremendous flux. After several decades of intense growth in Christian books, music and films, there have been no religious blockbusters in the past couple of years to drive sales during the holiday - a time religious retailers rely upon even more than their secular counterparts.

No end-of-days bestsellers such as the "Left Behind" series. No self-help tome like "The Purpose Driven Life." No major crossover film as successful as the "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the first in the Chronicles of Narnia series. No new celeb-evangelists with the status of T.D. Jakes or Joel Osteen to propel sales.

Thousands of Christian bookstores - long the backbone of the religious retail industry - have closed in the past decade.

A good part of the churn is happening in retail generally as sales go online and become more competitive and more segmented. Religious music sales have been hit hard by digital sales (and piracy).

Some industry experts say sales might be flattening because of a glut of Christian products. Others say the industry is struggling to interpret the desires of young Christians who were raised with these cultural touchstones but now have grown skeptical of what they see as a commercialized, isolating version of faith.

"This is a generation that doesn't necessarily want a store that segregates Christian from non-Christian products," said Stan Jantz, a marketing consultant and author who ran a chain of Christian retail stores for 25 years.

In a business that has to walk a fine line between the spiritual and sellable, these are tricky times.

"Even the word 'authenticity' has become inauthentic," said Michael Covington, a spokesman for the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.

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