Christian Retailing

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Wednesday, 27 July 2011 11:54 AM America/New_York

Suppliers’ support helps store staff overcome ‘fear factor’ in selling God’s WordToniPoole

Now more than ever, Christian retailers need to be at the top of their game when it comes to helping shoppers choose the right Bible.The cornerstone product remains the area where Christian stores should be able to outshine other channels and cement their place in consumers’ minds as the specialist place for God’s Word.

Additionally, the Bible department is widely seen as one reading category more immune to being impacted by digital publishing because most shoppers still want a physical copy of the Scriptures, even if they have an e-version for convenience.

But the rising opportunity in Bibles comes when it may never have been more challenging for stores to take advantage of it—as reduced staffing levels leave less time for frontliners to keep on top of new products and releases, and the number of SKUs continues to grow.

There are around 9,000 Bible ISBNs available currently—so many translations and editions that it “boggles the mind, really,” said Skip Prichard, president and CEO of Ingram Content Group, whose Spring Arbor Christian distribution offers a special telephone hotline to help stores.

According to a Christian Retailing Vital Signs industry survey earlier this year, stores have increased the number of Bible SKUs they carry by a third in the past four years, to around 350.

“Christian retailers genuinely want to offer their customers a great Bible buying experience,” said Thomas Nelson’s Senior Vice President and Bible Group Publisher Gary Davidson. “I’ve seen store associates offer help in the aisles at Christian retail stores more than any other store I’ve visited.

“However, due to high staff turnover, limited time and (a) large number of Bible titles, it’s very difficult for clerks to be well-versed on all available products.”

Christian stores have a unique advantage over their general market and general bookstore counterparts “in that they often carry a depth of product in their Bible sections that is unmatched by many other retailers,” said Chip Brown, senior vice president and publisher, Bibles, at Zondervan. But that can sometimes be “an overwhelming selection”—for shoppers and store staff.

Brown referenced past research by his company that had found that 50% of consumers who enter a store with the intention of purchasing a Bible leave empty-handed because the selection is so big it becomes confusing and they don’t know what to choose.

At Tyndale House Publishers, Blaine Smith, associate publisher for Bibles, told Christian Retailing that several Christian retailers had recently reported that the two categories store associates find the most challenging to service are music and Bibles.

Help is available, however. There are “numerous selling tools available” for stores to help customers, “but in the bustle of daily activities, these can be forgotten,” observed Davidson.


Zondervan’s Bible training support was by far the most popular publisher program cited by stores in our Vital Signs survey. 

The software program, revamped earlier this year ahead of the launch of the updated New International Version, does “an excellent job” in helping frontliners said Tom Lacey, church program director at Cedar Springs Christian Stores in Knoxville, Tenn., who overseas staff training for the three-location business.

The Zondervan package “is designed to really focus on educating clerks on translation families, types of Bibles and most importantly, how to best engage with the customer,” Brown said.

Once they have completed the 20-minute course, store staff who pass a short quiz based on the information they have learned are eligible for a $75 retail value coupon towards a Zondervan Bible for their personal use. In addition, Zondervan also offers a Bible translation chart and signage for the Bible department.

Thomas Nelson’s upgraded Web site,, offers “a robust explanation of our titles,” along with supportive videos, page samples and flipbooks, said Davidson. Additional elements such as increased “searchability” and training tools, including a Bible selling tree, were slated for rollout on the site in mid- to late 2011. 

The company also points stores to some of its other product- and campaign-specific sites where they can find further information about different titles and initiatives—among them, which focuses on this year’s 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.

“We also maintain a retail support site ( that includes tools such as print ads, videos, radio spots, flipbooks and Web banners that stores can use to both better familiarize themselves with Bible products as well as use for their own promotional pushes for the titles,” Davidson said.

Tyndale’s interactive Effective Bible Selling Training Kit, updated each year, is available online ( and on DVD-ROM. Part One includes Bible Basics, which offers an overview of Bible history, translations and translation methodologies, and Connecting, with role play on how to connect with 

New this year is an Advanced section, featuring a 35-minute Bible translation seminar taught by Mark Taylor, Tyndale president and chief stylist and director of the Bible Translation Committee for the company’s New Living Translation. The kit also includes a downloadable Bible translation brochure and information on Bible bindings, as well as a section on effective merchandising with Total Solutions merchandising supplies.

Part Two of the program is a self-guided tour of the Tyndale Bible line, and all sales associates who complete the course earn a free copy of the NLT Study Bible WORDsearch 8 Bible Software or can choose from one of three free Bibles.

“Even though training is time-consuming, the return on investment is profound in the confidence associates display when helping customers challenged with a myriad of Bibles to choose,” said Tyndale’s Smith.

Crossway, which publishes the English Standard Version (ESV), initially created a training kit for the release of its ESV Study Bible, but no longer produces it. “We do not have general Bible training either. These have been very sporadically used by stores in the past,” said Angie Cheatham, Crossway publicist.


The possibility of rewards for better equipping frontliners in the Bible department is echoed by Lacey at Cedar Springs Christian Stores—cited by Russ Schwartz, director of independent retail sales at Thomas Nelson as “a prime example of how independent Christian bookstores offer more than just product for their customers.”

The store’s Bible department is well-organized, “and knowledgeable store personnel make it a point to be around to assist customers in answering questions and pointing them to just the right Bible for them,” Schwartz added.

Newcomers to the team at Cedar Springs are given backroom training and an on-the-floor introduction to the stores’ sizable Bible department, and are encouraged to study suppliers’ training programs.

“The overwhelming thing that we try to impress on new staff is not to be intimidated about helping someone when they come in, but rather think what greater thing can they be part of than helping someone find the Word of God that best meets their needs,” Lacey said. “We emphasize that more than the fear factor.”

At Parables in Omaha, Neb.—where Bible sales account for about 20% of the store’s total revenues—a well-designed, laid-out and signed department was as important for staff as for customers to feel comfortable in, owner Dorothy Alford said.

Frontliners at the store are given guidelines for understanding major Bible translations and features, and are encouraged to complete the Zondervan training program. Occasional quizzes keep them alert to major changes and additions to the inventory, with a small bonus for answering the tests correctly.


BibleSamplingLike staff at Cedar Springs, frontliners at Parables—one of the stores pointed to by Zondervan for handling Bible sales well—are taught to ask customers a few simple questions to help focus their search:

 Who is the Bible for?

 What is it going to be used for: study, devotions, reading in church?

 Does the purchaser—or recipient, if it is a gift—have a favorite translation?

“Just being able to answer these basic questions, you can narrow it down to about 25% of what is available,” Lacey said. 

That approach was exemplified by longtime Bible publisher sales representative William “Bill” Reynolds—widely known as “Mr. Bible”—who died in May, aged 87. On retirement from Broadman & Holman (now B&H Publishing Group), he worked part time as a volunteer in the Bible department of the former Valley Book & Bible Stores in Van Nuys, Calif. 

Steve Laube, now a literary agent, recalled how when he worked at the Berean Christian Store in Phoenix, Reynolds would call to present Broadman & Holman’s new titles. “But then he would hang around and literally work as a store clerk helping customers who walked into that department,” Laube said.” And he wouldn’t just sell them Holman products. He patiently guided the customer to the right Bible for their needs.”

Reynolds would then select a tasseled bookmark and give it to the customer as a thank-you gift—paying for it after the customer left. “He took his time with a customer when selling a Bible,” Laube recalled. “He said a key when hand-selling a leather Bible is to never have more than three Bibles in front of the customer at once.”


Adding trained Bible experts to depth of product “makes a winning combination” for Christian retail stores, Zondervan’s Brown said. 

“We have received great feedback from the stores who have invested the time to complete clerk training, and they tell us that it definitely does impact Bible sales as the clerks are better equipped to guide the customer through the process of selecting the right Bible for their needs.”

Davidson suggested that store owners and managers ensure that Bible training resources be placed where there was “a daily reminder that they exist, or if they choose to implement some on-shelf assets, it will become more second-nature to implement the use of them.

“The rocky economy has had everyone being cautious about their business activities. But I’d like to encourage stores to realize that sometimes it’s worth taking a risk,” he added. “I believe that if they use some of the resources that Thomas Nelson and others provide to them, even if merely on a trial basis, there’s a larger potential for them to see increased sales versus simply continuing business as usual.”


Even stores like Cedar Springs and Parables, which invest in training for Bible sales, can find themselves stumped, which is why Lacey is among the retailers appreciative of Spring Arbor’s Bible hotline.

Part of Ingram’s customer service support for retailers, the reference center takes around 60,000 Bible-related calls each year at 800-395-2594.

Typical of the inquiries handled by supervisor Toni Poole and her team was the recent one from Jean at an independent store. She had a customer looking to buy an NIV as a present and the prospective purchaser thought that it was available in a two-tone cover, one of the colors being blue and the other possibly watermelon.

Checking her files, Poole was able to advise Jean that Zondervan had a two-tone blue and green edition that seemed to match the customer’s description. She passed along the ISBN so that the store could place a special order for the inquirer.

A few minutes later, Poole answered the line to Annette, calling from a LifeWay Christian Store. The frontliner had a customer in the store who was looking for a large-print King James Scofield in a basket-weave cover. Checking her files, Poole was able to advise Annette that such a binding was not available.

Answers to some of the questions Poole and her team handle could be found by the callers themselves if they spent some time checking online catalogs and even Spring Arbor’s iPage inventory, but being able to make a call can resolve the problem more quickly and make them seem more efficient to shoppers.

“There are so many Bibles out there that there is no way for anyone to know everything that is available,” said Poole. “They feel more confident knowing that they can call and ask for information.”

An 18-year veteran with the distributor, Poole handles the most obscure questions if others on her team cannot help. She draws from publishers’ catalogs and Web sites, iPage and personal data files she has created through the years in response to frequent questions. Among her crib sheets: a list of single-column Bibles, those which are black letter only and those that have silver page-edging. She has learned that customers often want to know which translation their favorite TV preacher uses, too. 

The Bible hotline guides can turn hands-on to a mini-library of around 700 different Bibles, donated by publishers, in their suite. The Bible collection is also home to the original index cards on which common answers were handwritten when the phone-in service was launched by the company before its acquisition by Ingram.

The Bible hotline enables stores to identify just what the shopper wants and then offer to place a special order if they do not have it in stock. As a result, calls “generally translate into a sale,” Poole said.

Saturdays are the busiest day of the week for inquiries—when more people are out shopping—with graduation and Christmas the busiest seasons of the year, as Bible gift-giving peaks. Some calls end emotionally, reminding Poole of the significance of the service she is providing.

Shoppers “sometimes burst into tears” when they are helped to find what they are looking for, she said. “They might have come into the store with a Bible owned by a late relative, wanting to find another or similar copy. “If it’s a gift for someone, it can be an emotional purchase,” Poole added. “I love it when I have been able to help a bookstore locate something that is a help to someone who is searching.”

For Poole, the Bible questions are “my favorite part of the work. The Word of God is important and our mission is to help get the Word out into the world. This is my contribution to that end.”