Connecting with local congregations spells ongoing business for retailers
Church supplies remain a steady source of sales for brick-and-mortar stores willing to stock up even as some product categories have seen serious shrinkage at Christian retail in recent years. Retailers pursuing church sales of everything from pulpits to pews and from communion wafers to choir robes report that this department not only can hold its own, but also even grow when handled with care.
“Church supplies could be anything from ministry resources, Bible studies, small-group materials, welcome and outreach products, office supplies, bulletins, certificates, record books, communion products and so on,” said Mike Meadows, director of product marketing for Warner Press. “These aren’t items your average parishioner is going to be shopping for. The list is varied, but think about who the customer is, and that will help narrow down what products would fit into church supplies.”
Innovative Inc. has done the research, and results are encouraging.
“We did a report earlier this year that showed the two areas of growth for Christian stores are church supplies and gifts,” said Troy Hurst, director of church sales and marketing for Innovative. “But I think a lot of churches still don’t know that Christian bookstores have church supplies. It’s important to have a section specifically for church supplies—even if it’s a small section. One of the biggest challenges for retailers, from a church standpoint, is that stores carry so little of it that churches don’t know they can get things from the Bible bookstore down the street rather than ordering online.”
Stores that are successful with church supplies keep in close contact with congregations in their area and ensure that they have plenty of consumables on hand for last-minute Saturday shopping.
Tampa Christian Supply has seen such a downturn in sales of Christian books, music and gifts that the store recently announced it will sell only church supplies, a few gifts and Bibles, and the top 10 or 15 best-selling books and DVDs.
“That is the category we have seen the least amount of shrinkage in,” said Patrick Pelizze, the store’s vice president. “Church supplies and Sunday school materials will now be our main thrust, as well as things that you can’t buy anywhere else locally, like anointing oil.”
Jack Savage ran the Christian gifts and bookstore Jack’s Religious Gift Shop in Maryland for 50 years before closing the store in early 2010 when he planned to retire. Instead, Savage found himself in the church-supplies business.
“Every church needs communion cups and candles,” Savage said. “Those items get customers into your store, and then you can sell them other things.”
Savage keeps the consumables readily available but also stocks a selection of choir robes, chairs, communion tables and clergy shirts for browsing by appointment.
CARRY THE CONSUMABLES
One way to get repeat customers in this age of online buying is to carry consumables. Communion cups, seasonal bulletins, offering envelopes and candles get used. When they’re gone, churches need more. They can order them with the click of a button, but shipping often costs extra, and the time it takes to receive what they need can keep a church heading to their local Christian retailer.
“Stores need diversity in this category, and they need the new products like the latest bulletins,” said John Whitaker, vice president of Anchor Distributors. “It’s a nice category because so much is consumable. Communion cups, prefilled communion sets and offering envelopes are consistently in our top 20 items for this category.”
Staying well-stocked is critical.
“When a church goes to the local bookstore to pick up their monthly supplies or quarterly supplies, if the store doesn’t have a good amount in stock the churches will start ordering online,” said Ed Barber, church accounts sales manager for Send The Light Distribution (STL). “Churches need to be able to run down to their local Christian store on Saturday if they are out of communion bread and pick up that communion bread.”
Today stores may be picking up communion bread that is gluten-free. Swanson Christian Products is one company that offers gluten-free, organic, kosher wafers.
“We sell communion bread, including some of the gluten-free, and our biggest thing is communion cups,” said Donna Dightman Baker, owner of Dightman’s Bible Book Center in Tacoma, Washington. “We get them from Broadman and go through a ton. We have used some of the other ones, but our churches really like the Broadman ones best because they have a deluxe cup that has a lip that is a little heavier and not as sharp. The biggest problem with the plastic communion cups is that they get broken in shipping sometimes. We’ve had some disasters, but Broadman is good and will always replace them.”
Prefilled communion packs like Compak’s Celebration Cup (with grape juice and communion wafer) and Broadman Church Supplies’ Remembrance (with grape juice and communion bread) and Fellowship Cups (grape juice with communion wafer) are seeing sales increases, as churches like the convenience and the ability to easily carry communion off site or take the elements with them on mission trips.
“We sell a ton of those prefilled communion sets,” Tampa Christian’s Pelizze said. “The all-in-one Remembrance cups—we are doing a lot of those.”
Some stores also are seeing a rise in sales of certificates, offering envelopes and bulletins.
Dightman’s in Washington state has a reputation of carrying the largest variety of bulletins on the West Coast.
“We do carry and sell a lot of Warner bulletins,” said Baker, noting she stocks hundreds of designs.
Meadows said the ongoing popularity of Warner bulletins remains in part because the company regularly updates the designs of its paper goods, often with the advice of retailers.
“We are regularly seeking their input on new ideas, and working with them to make the church resource lines both attractive and profitable,” Meadows said. “We’re in regular contact with stores throughout the year.”
FIGURE IN FURNITURE
Beyond the consumables, church furniture is becoming a growth category for some Christian retailers, in large part due to Blue Ridge Church Furniture, the largest American manufacturer of church furniture that does not sell directly to churches, but works only through vendors.
“Churches in the United States spend more than $100 million on furniture annually,” said Blue Ridge owner Scott Gabrielson. “We’ve had a lot of stores tell us that church furniture sales are what kept them open this last year.”
Gabrielson said Blue Ridge partners with STL for distribution, and stores can become dealers without carrying bigger pieces in stock. Blue Ridge creates pulpits, chairs, communion tables and baptistries, and also refinishes and reupholsters church furniture.
“Just place the order with STL, and everything is handled from there, right down to the delivery,” Gabrielson said. “And when you are talking big-ticket items like pulpits and pews, stores make a nice commission.”
While Savage could stick with showing brochures to his customers, he feels it’s important to have one or two pieces on hand, especially sample chairs.
“They need to be able to touch it, sit on it, see the color,” Savage said. “I had a church member take a chair to a board meeting the other day, and now the church is buying 75 of them. You get a pretty good return on them too.”
“Seeing is believing,” agreed Gerald Derreberry, owner of the 15-year-old Living Water store in Murphy, North Carolina. “You have to have one or two of the items in stock. It makes all the difference in the world. We’ve been doing some small church supplies, but what is beginning to help us is the fact that we have started carrying church furniture. Communion tables are a big trend, and we have many churches that need chairs. We can even help get pews reupholstered.”
HELP THE HOLIDAYS
Christmas and Easter call for extra communion supplies and candles for most churches. These holidays present an opportunity for retailers to introduce themselves to church leaders, reminding them that they can buy local. The stores can send out extra discount flyers and coupons to church secretaries during these times of year.
“Church supplies have always been a staple part of our business, but in the last couple of years in particular we have noticed a fairly sizable increase,” said Brian Schroeder for Phoenix-based Christian Brands, a manufacturer and distributor of church supplies and Christian gifts. “Where we have seen a lot of growth is in the candle business. A few years ago, we acquired Will & Baumer, a candle company that has been around nearly 160 years. It is a quality brand that has been really good for us.”
Schroeder said that almost every church uses candles for many reasons during the holidays, from filling candelabras to decorating communion tables to using small tapers during candlelight services.
“Churches need congregation candles because everyone uses them for Easter and Christmas,” Schroeder said. “We have seen that grow significantly in the Protestant market. And the beauty of candles pieces is that they are completely consumable. They need to be replaced year after year after year and season after season. By carrying these items, you can make your store a destination.”
Another item that may be needed for the holidays is new clergy shirts or choir robes. Christian Brands recently acquired R.J. Toomey, billed as “the oldest and best-known” clerical apparel firm in the United States.
“We felt like there is a shortage of good-quality clergy shirts in the marketplace,” Schroeder said. “These are great shirts in the $50 range. With our lines, we want to offer great quality at a great price.”
Savage gives an added bonus to churches that buy shirts and robes from his store. If a church spends $200, he gives them a store-branded robe bag. The bags cost Savage less than $3 each, and the choir then carries Savage’s store name wherever they travel. If stores want to buy the bags separately, he sells them for $7.95.
Retailers reported mixed results selling curriculum to churches, with increases in small-group studies for adults and decreases in children’s and VBS overall.
“Standard lesson commentaries in the King James sell the most for us,” said Baker of Dightman’s. “A lot of our black churches are using that as the curriculum because they had trouble getting curriculum from their denomination. We only stock limited curriculum now and make sure we are very careful to call all the churches two-and-a-half months ahead and confirm their orders, then we consolidate orders to get free shipping.”
Case Bibles do well, as well as DVD-driven products for small group studies, Baker said.
Savage has seen Sunday school curriculum sales drop.
“We are selling less and less Sunday school for children,” Savage said. “We still sell books for adult Bible studies and small-group DVD studies. We’re seeing more of that.”
POUND THE PAVEMENT
Christian retailers hear it all the time, but in church supplies—as with most categories—nothing brings in sales better than by building relationships. In order to reach churches new and old, that may mean pounding the pavement, visiting churches face to face to introduce the store and what it has to offer. Smaller stores can work the phones when there is a lull in traffic. Hosting an annual pastors’ breakfast can break the ice, and inviting secretaries and board members may broaden retailers’ ability to reach decision makers.
Retailers can always make sure they are getting to know every customer who walks into the store.
“What we are finding is that pastors and lay leadership are shopping in Christian stores, but a lot of the time we just can’t identify them anymore,” Hurst said. “Their clothes don’t set them apart. They look like regular guys. If a retailer doesn’t have the time to go out to the churches, he can get the contact information of everyone that comes up to register buying communion cups in large quantities. Chances are they are not taking them home for a project. Stores should start putting a notebook together of their different contacts, engaging people in their stores in conversation and being more precise with the questions that they ask.”
Another way stores are reaching congregations is through joining marketing groups and programs to take advantage of discounts as well as catalog and coupon promotions. Innovative’s Church Marketing Solutions offers a comprehensive program with an annual church supplies catalog and three seasonal catalogs. The catalogs are custom-branded with the store’s information.
“We work with about 50 different vendors and work very hard to build and grow our church business within the retail industry, not only with our catalogs, but through our more than 200 Signature store websites,” Hurst said.
Munce Group offers a new 16-page church supplies catalog, featuring eight pages of standard items and eight pages of small group, Sunday school/children’s ministry and pastoral items.
Covenant Group and Christian Brands each offer an annual church supplies catalog. Covenant publishes a 400-page catalog for the category each September that goes out to more than 60,000 churches. Covenant provides its member stores and Parable franchise stores with the catalog. Christian Brands produces a 135-page spring church supplies catalog that is not branded, so that stores can put their own sticker or stamp on it.
Another way for stores to participate in deeper discounts and promotional materials is through STL’s Premier Partner Advantage Program. Stores that join the program receive an extra discount on more than 200 church supply items in 16 categories from vendors such as B&H Publishing Group, Abingdon Press and Swanson.
“I worked in church supplies with Broadman & Holman for 27 years before I came to STL, so I know what items are consistently in the top 50,” STL’s Barber said. “I thought we could take those top items, expand them and pass an extra discount along to the retailer when they sign up for this program.”
In addition, Premier Partner Advantage participants will receive specials on certain seasonal and best-selling products. They also will receive downloadable marketing materials like videos and brochures.
LIVE LA VIDA LOCAL
Some Christian retailers are going to new churches as well as visiting current customers, reminding them of all the ways their store can benefit congregations.
“Relational shopping is huge, much larger than people realize,” said Richard Hauhuth, director of online sales and marketing for Innovative. “That’s why we think of our websites as more of a tool to drive people to the store than as e-commerce. We offer a lot of different programs so stores can have as many lines in the water as they can. Print catalogs are still very important, but a store also needs to frequently email promotions. A lot of stores feel like all they need to do is put up a Facebook page, but they need to be able to communicate in many ways.”
Barber also encourages building relationships with churches.
“In our Premier program, I plan to give retailers tools that almost force them to get in front of church pastors and church secretaries and decision makers—those that are making buying decisions for local churches,” he said.
“I think for bookstores to survive and thrive, they need to know where new churches are starting in their area, whether at the local elementary schools or YMCAs. They are going to need consumables and curriculum. Get some face time and say, ‘Hey, here’s a 25% off coupon. Come see me.’ Be proactive, and you can use these catalogs like a calling card.”
Retailers also can build relationships by promoting the “Shop Local” theme and partnering with other businesses such as audiovisual equipment dealers that work on church sound systems or dry cleaners that handle choir robes. Offer to cross-promote each other’s businesses with flyers and coupons.
“We are right down the road from Lewis-McChord Army and Air Force base, and they are great at shopping local,” Baker said. “They buy great big cartons of bulletins.”
Derreberry reminds his fellow retailers of how important it is to simply get the ball rolling in the right direction.
“We are going out to the churches, handing out flyers and getting business now by word-of-mouth,” he said of Living Water’s recent church furniture sales. “If you can just get that one church to buy, everybody else starts to follow.”