Kids Media: Kids’ corner still strong Print
Written by Karen Schmidt   
Monday, 09 February 2009 01:46 PM America/New_York
Youthful emphasis seen in product campaigns for coming sales season

kids mediaAs Christian suppliers and retailers face a slump in consumer spending, they are looking to children’s products as a bright spot on a gloomy horizon.

A strong line of new releases and innovative marketing efforts offer hope for the spring and summer seasons, while stores have been urged to ensure that they cater to the tastes of increasingly media-savvy young visitors.

Although sales in other categories faltered as 2008 ended, children’s books appeared to have kept moving—suggesting that families are still eager for inspirational products that promise hope and reinforce values in strenuous times.
Sales data from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) for the first three quarters of last year revealed that shoppers were working hard to save, but still buying for their children.

Purchasers of children’s books spent slightly less per book, but spent a bit more in total during each shopping visit, said Michael Covington, ECPA’s information and education director. “This would lead us to believe that consumers could be looking for lower price points, but buying more when they find those books,” he said, noting that the average retail price of kids’ books didn’t change during that period.

With prices in mind, publishers have devised promotions for spring and summer to wake up families to new as well as tried-and-true children’s books, movies and music. Homing in on best-selling brands and favorite authors, product lines are widening and diversifying, with VeggieTales, Hermie & Friends and Gigi, God’s Little Princess among the major players this year.

“We anticipate 2009 to be a very pink year,” said Dan Lynch, vice president, publisher for family entertainment at Thomas Nelson, looking ahead to more products in Sheila Walsh’s Gigi brand for girls aged 3-7. Multi-format brands will combine books, audio and video.

There’s a Princess in Me! ($16.99, March), a picture book with a die-cut window and Mylar mirror shows girls they are princesses in God’s eyes. Gigi’s Royal Tea Party ($14.99, March) board book contains the corresponding DVD episode, while the Gigi’s Ginormous Sneeze DVD ($14.99, March) focuses on praying and seeing others as God does.

In May, in answer to consumer requests, Gigi’s popular feather boa ($5.99) will be available along with Sweet Dreams Princess Audio ($19.99), eight hours of read-along Bible devotionals voiced by Sheila Walsh; 12 of her lullabies are in God’s Little Princess Lullabies ($10.99).

While Gigi is branching out, so is her Nelson associate, the famous caterpillar Hermie.

The company’s “2009: The Year of the Worm” promotional campaign is aimed at spurring customers to complete their 11-episode “Hermie & Friends” collection while making repeated store visits. Each month a different Hermie product will be available—through Christian retail stores only—at 50% off. A vivid green plastic counter display and headers are intended to nab customers’ attention.

Big Idea’s VeggieTales introduces Abe and the Amazing Promise DVD ($14.99, Word Distribution) along with The VeggieTales Bible, its first full-text volume ($24.99, Zonderkidz), this month. A $10 rebate offer rewards buyers of both the Bible and the DVD; a floor display holds both products.

The Bible and DVD are the inaugural products Big Idea is introducing in its “Values to Grow By” campaign, which introduces the new VeggieTales look, fresher and brighter. Backlist product will be re-issued with value pricing, along with a Bible curriculum that “bridges the gap between VeggieTales DVDs and the Bible.” The $39.99 15-lesson package is available March 1.

DVD sales are a source of optimism, according to Greg Fritz, vice president of sales and marketing for Big Idea. He cited a recent survey conducted by CBA that revealed that 58.4% of Christian retail stores had seen an increase in DVD sales.

“Consumers are increasingly selective about DVD content,” Fritz told Christian Retailing. “They’re picking up familiar products with a compelling message.
“Format is more important now than ever. The relatively low price of a DVD compared to other entertainment options is giving the category a boost.”

‘A foundation of faith’
Children’s Bibles and Bible storybooks are unstoppable favorites for continual sales, according to Laura Minchew, vice president and publisher of children’s books and education at Thomas Nelson.

The trend is unchanged despite the difficult economy, she said: “Children’s books and Bibles are selling. When Christian parents prioritize, helping their children build a foundation of faith by learning God’s Word is right at the top.”
That is true at The House of James in Abbotsford, British Columbia, said children’s department manager Kim Klassen. Next to Christmas, she said, Easter is the prime season for children’s Bible storybooks. Klassen noted that while customers are looking for deals, the books that sell best are those with interactive features and plenty of bright color.

With the release of The VeggieTales Bible, Zonderkidz is emphasizing the importance of store personnel training and encouraging stores to make use of its online sales associate training kit that teaches successful Bible sales and familiarizes frontliners with all Zondervan Bible product. Alicia Mey, vice president of marketing at Zonderkidz, pointed to a CBA survey that found that 48% of consumers who walk into a retail store intending to buy a Bible “leave empty-handed because they’re too overwhelmed to make a decision.”

Looking toward Easter, Thomas Nelson will help retailers sell Bible storybooks by offering a 50%-off sale on best-selling titles such as God’s Little Princess Devotional Bible Storybook and 100 Bible Stories, 100 Bible Songs. Lynch said this is the first time the publisher has offered a sale of this sort. An endcap kit is now available for this promotion.

Children’s market expert Mary Manz Simon—whose The Anytime Bible for 4- to 8-year-olds released from Scholastic in January—observed that as consumers see their cash shrink, “familiar” and “trusted” are traits they find comforting. Tyndale House Publishers makes the most of this with Kenneth N. Taylor’s Classic Bible Storybook ($12.99, March), a blending of stories from Taylor’s Bible Story Book and The Living Bible Story Book.

The “comfort food” concept applies to children’s books in general, not just Bible product. A case in point is the new inspirational “Berenstain Bears” books from Zonderkidz, with the same art and author as the beloved general market version. The books have sold 100,000-plus copies since their September release.

“They’re just flying off the shelves,” acknowledged Klassen, who said customers and store staff have been pleased with the clear faith lessons in the stories.

Favorite authors are the draw for older readers, such as those loyal to fantasy writers. Now that Donita K. Paul’s 250,000-plus-selling “Dragonkeeper Chronicles” is complete, older tween and teen readers are ready for her next book. The Vanishing Sculptor ($13.99) which WaterBrook Press expects to be one of its bigger books this year, is due in June.

Chuck Black fans are slightly younger (8-12) than Paul’s, but just as eager for his next Multnomah Books releases: Sir Bentley and Holbrook Court ($8.99, February) and Sir Dalton and the Shadow Heart ($8.99, May) are books 2 and 3 in the “Knights of Arrethrae” series.

John Carter Cash, son of the late country music stars Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, launches his children’s book career in March as Little Simon Inspirations, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, publishes Momma Loves Her Little Son. The $16.99 picture book for kids 4-8 explores the relationship between mother and child, and will be promoted with an author video available to retailers.

Environmental awareness has finally come to the Christian children’s and tweens’ arena in a serious way with several publishers releasing “green” titles.
In May Crossway Books & Bibles will publish Let’s Explore God’s World ($10.99) by author-illustrator Debby Anderson for 3- to 7-year-olds.

It’s a Green Thing ($12.99, Multnomah Books, February), book 2 in “Diary of a Teenage Girl, Maya” by Melody Carlson, follows 16-year-old Maya’s spiritual journey through family troubles. A Green Tip of the Day follows each chapter.

Master Books’ success with its “A Field Trip in a Book” series brings the April release of book 3, The Complete Aquarium Adventure by Bill and Merilee Clifton ($18.99) for ages 5 and up. Geology for Kids by Mike Oard ($14.99, May) is the first in a series that will engage tweens with important creation concepts.

While general market children’s books delve deeper into kids’ fascination with technology, the Christian market still follows slowly for the most part.
Warner Press Kids has broken new ground, however, with its “The Codebearers Series,” which launched in August, building a loyal reader base. Allan and Christopher Miller, who created the series, are using their Web design skills to promote book 1, Hunter Brown and the Secret of the Shadow, through the Codebearers’ Web site.

It offers a free reading of the book, an online game, a low-animation video trailer and forums. While all these elements snag tweens’ interest, it’s the forums—where participants discuss topics related to the book—that have been exceptionally successful, from both the readers’ and the authors’ perspective.

Mike Meadows, Warner Press marketing and communications manager, said the company doesn’t release sales figures, but “we’re encouraged by what we’ve seen.” He said he has observed mounting interest in the series, which bodes well for the next two books, releasing this fall and in 2010.

“We’re hoping that instead of one big initial spike (in sales) and then a gradual tapering over the life cycle of the product, we’ll see a more gradual swelling of a more devoted reader base that will give longevity to the entire project,” Meadows said.

Multilevel marketing has implications for retailers in a wide sense. Children’s expert Simon emphasized that children’s “360 experience—watching television, text messaging, surfing the Net, blogging, playing video games, listening to music and instant messaging, for starters”—means that stores must integrate technology into sales presentations and displays.

“Because families are immersed in media, tech and entertainment, they expect to interact with every element in their work—including Christian bookstores,” she noted. Simon recommended retailers refresh their Web sites for easy navigation and up-to-date content.

Meadows agreed that the multifaceted experience—media- and tech-rich—of which a book is the anchor, is the best way to hook tween readers. As marketing continues for the series, he foresees bookstores will need to keep stocked on all volumes in the series.

“Hopefully this will mean multiple steady sellers for stores that carry and promote the books,” he said.

Mission City Press’ reading promotion in 2008 reaped “a landslide response” as more than 5,000 of its “A Life of Faith” novels were read by enthusiastic girls, reported Marketing Director Kathy Needham. Free books and coupons for A Life of Faith dolls were awarded for the different levels of reading accomplished.

The company anticipates another good response when it rolls out a “Study Buddy” program to promote the series’ study guides in late winter and early spring.
For all the price-consciousness consumers are displaying, the hot product at Christmas, even with its $99-plus price tag, was Digital Praise’s Guitar Praise, echoing the general market favorite Guitar Hero.

Sales were extremely good at Parable stores, according to the group’s sales and marketing specialist, Sally Ross. “Despite the state of the economy, parents seem to see the value that Guitar Praise brings to their family,” she commented.

In-store demonstrations of games like Dance Praise and Guitar Praise—which will have new releases before Easter—show customers how the products work, Ross said. “This allows customers to interact first-hand with the product and make more informed buying decisions,” she said, adding that well-trained staff is also essential.

Knowledgeable staff who are very familiar with products can make the difference in whether a customer finds a particular Bible, understands the difference between Bible storybooks or learns how to use a computer game.

“Even in the toughest economic times, the education and spiritual nurturing of children remains a priority for parents and families,” noted Laura Welch, editor in chief for New Leaf Publishing Group. “It’s important that stores continue to provide both personalized service and be able to articulate that books are still a great multipurpose, value item.”

Fritz echoed that message: “Stores who offer their customers a knowledgeable sales staff have a tremendous advantage over an online shopping experience. Special incentives, discount programs and frequent buyer plans add value to the overall transaction.”

In addition to product knowledge, stores need to emphasize attitude, Simon added. “Consumers who face gloomy times don’t want to come into a Christian bookstore and see gloomy faces,” she said.