Christian Retailing

The Essential Guide to Christian Retailing: Sell me a story Print Email
Written by By Natalie Nichols Gillespie   
Thursday, 18 June 2009 01:06 PM America/New_York

Despite time and technology, books remain Christian stores’ bread and butter


If you own a store in a retail segment that has seen major takeovers, downturns and closings in the last five years, now topped off by a country-wide, full-fledged recession, how do you keep your doors open and turn a profit?

Christian retailers who are surviving and even thriving in 2009 say it’s by prayer, by leveraging new technology and by finding innovative techniques to get back to the old basics: selling books that meet customers’ needs.

Stores interviewed by Christian Retailing on average generate 40% or more of their annual sales from books—not including Bibles—and have not significantly changed the amount of floor space devoted to books in the last five years.

Book sales come from new titles and backlist, from fiction and nonfiction, from children’s books and reference books, from brand-new authors and the tried-and-true. Topics and trends can drive significant sales—from the emergent church to money management—and retailers who want to keep making it are constantly finding ways to reach customers with the right prices and products.

“I would say our floor space has remained about the same for books,” said Jeff Andrews, book manager for Wellspring Christian Resources in Urbandale, Ill. “And when you look at our overall sales, nearly every day books are still on top.”



Rick Warren’s Zondervan blockbuster The Purpose-Driven Life became the best-selling hardcover book of all time in both the Christian and general markets. Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages (Northfield Publishing/Moody Publishers) has been around for nearly two decades and has appeared on the New York Times Paperback Advice best-sellers list more than 90 times. Spinoffs of the original book—The Five Love Languages: Singles Edition, The Five Languages of Apology and more—have multiplied the series’ impact.

Titles such as Warren’s and Chapman’s are examples of books whose sales have expanded into the many channels available today—from airport bookstores to Amazon and from Barnes & Noble to digital downloads on Kindle.

Now, with brand-new titles being sold in these diverse channels, backlist has become a bigger focus for Christian retail. Stores and suppliers say they are giving more marketing and promotional emphasis to their backlist titles, blogging about them, pairing an author’s new and older titles on displays, and watching news and cultural trends closely in order to promote books on popular topics.

“If I don’t have a deep backlist, if I just have what’s new and current, you can get that at Wal-Mart,” said Sue Smith, manager of Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Mich. “In fiction, especially, I need to have everything that is in print by their favorite authors. In Grand Rapids, there are Christian bookstores everywhere. There are other Christian stores a half-mile from me in both directions. I can’t afford to be out of what the customer wants.”

Retailers must understand their store’s customers in order to know just what to stock.

“We can’t afford to carry all of the depth that we used to, but we try to make sure that we are constantly carving out our niche that fits our customers,” said John Pope, owner of Cornerstone Bookstore in Boone, N.C. “We are always reviewing our categories. We have a new section on emerging issues. We have also set up a section for college students on dating and the like. We have a Christian history section, and we carry charismatic books.”

Successful stores know their locale and anticipate what books their customers will need, and they also keep on top of trends—both in publishing and in society. Savvy retailers promote books that match topically with “hot buttons” in the church, current news topics and upcoming blockbuster movies.

Many retailers bring popular authors’ backlist titles to the forefront to populate displays when a new title is released. Some stores pair nonfiction and fiction equivalents; for example, if a novel’s protagonist suffers from depression, a nonfiction book on the subject might be sold with it.

“We are absolutely doing backlist better,” said Sally Holefca, assistant manager for Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Mich. “We are definitely looking at the long tail”—fewer products selling in large quantities—“and firmly believe in having more than just frontlist best-sellers. People do come in looking for titles that are 2 or 3 years old. We also have a separate area with out-of-print books.”



The constant retail challenge, booksellers agreed across the board, is pricing. Customers, especially in today’s economy, go where they can get what they want at the best price. That means finding a way to match or beat Wal-Mart, Amazon and Christian Book Distributors, all known for selling books at lower price points than traditional brick-and-mortar booksellers.

In the last year, Holefca said Baker Book House has put its money where its mouth is, offering a deal to local churches to beat Amazon’s prices on books purchased from their store. The effort is becoming a big success.

Publishers have begun to lower the prices of hardcover titles from around $25 to the $22-23 range, but retailers would like to see that come down even further.

“Twenty dollars seems to be the breaking point for customers,” Pope said. “So if a book comes in at $23, I have to decide if I can take a hit on it to sell it under the $20 mark.”

On the other hand, trade paper prices have increased in the last couple of years, with many books now priced at $14.99.

“Price points are edging up on trade paper books from $13.99 to $14.99 as kind of a standard price,” said Steve Oates, vice president of marketing for Bethany House Publishers. “They have been at $13.99 for five to seven years, so a 7% increase over that span of time is actually quite low when you think of it in terms of inflation. Book prices in the CBA (market) are not rising as quickly as inflation.”

Oates agreed that $20 is the breaking point for customers.

“We are seeing more market resistance to hardcover books, I think more from the retailers than from the consumers,” Oates said. “When we are doing hardcovers, we are marking most of them under $20 to make them seem more affordable right now. People are being very careful with their spending, and we need to be sensitive to the consumers and their situation.”

Christian retailers also have the opportunity of selling digital books through the Symtio program, with the average transaction ringing up at $14. Buyers of Symtio product cards can purchase a book to read in a variety of formats, on a personal computer, PDA or iPod, for example.



Today’s Christian fiction is coming of age, covering topics that once would have been taboo, among them homosexuality, extramarital affairs, illegitimate children, divorce, remarriage and bipolar disorder.

By examining these real-life struggles through the lens of a Christian worldview, authors are giving hope a voice in the fiction market.

Christian fiction readers are dedicated fans. According to a 2008 survey by R.R. Bowker of 6,400 U.S. book buyers, the general adult population reads on average of 4.4 hours per week, book buyers (in general) read 5.2 hours per week, regular fiction buyers read 6.3 hours per week, but Christian fiction buyers read eight hours per week. The study also found that Christian fiction buyers are significantly more influenced by personal recommendation and the placement of books than by other book buyers and are significantly less influenced by advertising.

“Christian fiction has changed so much just in the last three or four years,” said Sherry White, senior buyer at American Wholesale Book Company, supplier for Books-A-Million stores. “There are so many good, fresh new voices out there.”

And while there are a lot of new authors, it can be tough for publishers to expend the resources to “groom” an author who doesn’t sell a lot of books right away.

“As we observe the best-seller lists for CBA, we don’t notice much change in the authors who appear on the list. We see many of the same authors each month,” said Cheryl Kerwin, senior marketing manager for Tyndale House Publishers, which plans to release around 50 fiction titles this year.

“It is becoming more challenging to break out new authors,” she added. “We’ve seen some recent success with some of our new authors that write in what might be considered a more literary style of novel. We’re excited to see the demand for writing from these authors as they grow into ‘fan favorites.’ ”

In terms of genre, Kerwin said suspense and thriller novels are on the rise in the Christian and mainstream markets, “primarily because there are quite a few good writers coming into the ranks, such as Susan May Warren (‘P. J. Sugar’ series) and DiAnn Mills (‘Call of Duty’ series).”

Avid fiction buyers love to connect, so if a frontliner knows and loves fiction, it will go a long way toward turning a one-time shopper into a returning customer. Avid fiction readers also look for two things: the newest title from their favorite author and the stories everyone else is reading. Consider the success of the New York Times best-seller The Shack by William P. Young (Windblown Media/Hachette Book Group USA) and the novel based on the recent Christian movie Fireproof by Eric Wilson (Thomas Nelson). Fiction readers continuously consume what has been termed the “next big thing.”

For Christian retailers, that means an opportunity to capitalize on what’s hot, but also to expand sales to a backlist deeper than many departments can sustain. Once fiction fans decide they like an author, they will want to read everything that author has written. And while they can find the latest Ted Dekker or Karen Kingsbury novel at Wal-Mart, they won’t find what Dekker wrote five years ago or what Kingsbury had out in 2001. That’s where CBA stores continue to find their fiction niche.



Although books remain the bread and butter for Christian retailers, overall traffic is still a challenge.

The trick in today’s retail climate is not only to get customers in the door, but also to keep them coming back. That means keeping a good variety of fresh voices on the shelves while maintaining inventory at a manageable and affordable level. When customers can order books with the click of a mouse and have them delivered to their front doors the next day or download them digitally onto Kindles and iPods, there has to be a compelling reason for the consumer to keep visiting their local Christian retail store.

“The reading habits haven’t changed much—it’s really where they are shopping,” said Sue Brower, acquisitions editor for Zondervan. “There is a larger selection of outlets to purchase books.”

What helps retailers win customers is the constant availability of the newest titles from big-name authors and word-of-mouth, as well as a good depth of backlist titles from which they can choose.

“It’s always exciting to find retailers who want to partner with us on new promotions and share the risk as we find ways to grow author brands and increase awareness about the amazing stories being published right now,” said Jennifer Deshler, senior marketing director for Thomas Nelson.

“I love it when a Christian retailer takes note of their customers’ individual tastes in reading and makes recommendations accordingly,” said author Mindy Starns Clark, whose latest suspense novel, Shadows of Lancaster County (Harvest House Publishers), released in January. “Nothing communicates ‘we value your patronage’ better than a bookseller who remembers previous transactions and/or feedback and offers relevant buying suggestions on subsequent visits.”

One way Smith at Baker Book House keeps her staff engaged is to hold brief, daily training sessions. They take only a few minutes each morning, but the effort keeps the 32 employees of the 16,000-square-foot store knowledgeable about current inventory and departments.

“Every morning we pray together; then we train on product knowledge,” Smith said. “We take different sections of the store and take like 10 minutes to go through them.

“Each person is responsible for a department and reads a book out of that department to review the best-sellers for us. By reviewing the book for us, that person trains the rest of the staff on that title. Our staff can take any of the books home for free as long as they bring them back with the spine intact. The training keeps us sharper. Today, you can’t just sit around.”

Efforts like these pay off in the minds of customers and authors alike.

“I think Christian retailers know their product,” said best-selling author Kristin Billerbeck (“The Trophy Wives Club,” Avon Inspire). “In my local store, they are such a safe environment for hurting people. They pray for needs and can hand-select a book to comfort or be of help to the customer. I also think it’s great how they keep an author’s backlist.”



Stores that succeed change their displays often, dedicate endcaps to new product and keep customers notified through e-mail updates and special promotions. Beyond having a Web site, they are creating a presence on social network sites like MySpace and Facebook, and blogging and joining Twitter. And they are creating databases of customers and regularly e-mailing coupons to be redeemed in-store.

Books-A-Million has book clubs that attract customers to an interactive reading experience, and many Christian retailers still bring in authors for book signings. A coffee bar or comfortable seating with free Wi-Fi also creates an engaging atmosphere.

Social networks, blogs, podcasts and video sites like YouTube are helping authors connect directly with fans.

Angela Hunt, Karen Kingsbury, Robin Jones Gunn and many other fiction authors maintain up-to-date Web sites with dates of their appearances, latest projects and fan perks like contests and giveaways. Many also send regular e-newsletters.

Gunn held a virtual tea party with her Facebook friends, and Hunt invited her Facebook friends to join her in watching the Hallmark TV movie Taking a Chance on Love, a sequel based on her popular characters from The Note, her 2001 novel that was made into a 2007 Hallmark original movie.

Kingsbury for years has contacted retailers personally, held contests, created her own brochures for retailers and given away cruises, opportunities to name a character in one of her novels and more. She has endeared herself to readers by answering letters and making frequent appearances.

Most recently, she began posting videos on YouTube, showing her family on game nights and promoting her favorite causes and books.

It’s Kingsbury’s kind of dedication, coupled with a warm retail environment, that keeps customers loyal.

“With the economy the way it is, we can reach people in a crisis,” Pope said.



The chart below shows the value of a backlist book. It especially pays for stores to stock books such as 1992’s The Five Love Languages that seem to have nine lives, but others, even those just a few years old, can continue to pay dividends in terms of sales and customer satisfaction.

1. The Shack, William P. Young (Windblown Media/Hachette Book Group USA, 2008), $14.99

2. The Love Dare, Stephen and Alex Kendrick (B&H Books/B&H Publishing Group, 2008), $14.99

3. 90 Minutes in Heaven, Don Piper with Cecil Murphey (Revell/Baker Publishing Group, 2004), $13.99

4. The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman (Northfield Publishing/Moody Publishers, 1992), $14.99

5. Love & Respect, Emerson Eggerichs (Thomas Nelson, 2004), $22.99

6. Someday, Karen Kingsbury (Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), $13.99

7. 3:16, Max Lucado (Thomas Nelson, 2007), $24.99

8. Captivating, John and Stasi Eldredge (Thomas Nelson, 2007), $14.99

9. The Purpose-Driven Life, Rick Warren (Zondervan, 2007), $14.99

10. Jesus Calling, Sarah Young (Thomas Nelson, 2004), $13.99

The 2008 best-seller list is compiled from sales of Christian books in hundreds of Christian retail outlets nationwide, collected using Pubtrack Christian ( All rights reserved. Copyright 2009 Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.