Christian Retailing

Make your store a destination Print Email
Written by Deonne Lindsey   
Wednesday, 29 May 2013 10:17 AM America/New_York

Unusual events draw new and longtime customers to the place-to-be location

Planning and getting the word out about a special promotion or event takes no small amount of time and money—as many Christian retailers can attest. If an event goes well, it can drive new and returning customers into your store, generate sales and get some positive word-of-mouth going in your community. But, if things don’t go so well, it’s extra clean-up and back to the drawing board. So what does it take to make a solid event? 

Christian Retailing talked with six retailers who gave their take on the answer to that age-old question.


For Eli Hochstetler, co-owner of the Gospel Bookstore in Berlin, Ohio, one of the keys to a successful event is not going it alone. Hochstetler is also president of the Berlin Main Street Merchants and makes sure his store is part of many larger promotions in the area. 

The association puts on various events throughout the year that Hochstetler says area residents look forward to, with the events becoming area traditions. 

A Pajama Party at the end of January, one of the coldest points of the year in Ohio, has drawn together an average of more than 70 merchants for the last 10 years. Stores open at 7 a.m. to crowds that have camped out in line. Everyone knows the cardinal rule is to keep it fun—no pajamas, no purchase.

The merchants’ association also sponsors the Berlin Barn Storm event each spring. The goal is to find the multicolored, hand-carved barns hidden in each of the participating businesses. Each found barn earns the finder the opportunity to enter his or her name in a drawing for a $25 gift card from participating businesses and a grand prize. The grand-prize drawing is held at the indoor stage in the market area just outside the bookstore.

“This year I ended up stopping to talk to two young couples who were out looking for barns, and they told me, ‘This is the craziest thing we do all year, and we just love it!’ ” Hochstetler said. 

For Danni Schneidt-Hill, owner of Promises “His” Coffee and Cottage Shoppe in Malta, Mont., the merchant group strategy has also worked well. Her local Chamber of Commerce does an “Alive at 5” event once a month with activities and sales that run 5 p.m.-7 p.m. 

“Our building is on a three-acre lot, so I convinced the chamber to have their September event in our parking lot since we’re just outside town,” Schneidt-Hill said. 

For the evening, the whole parking lot took on a farmers’ market feel with food sales, a scarecrow-decorating contest and pumpkin painting. The store also provided coupons to all those who brought food bank donations. The event drew new people from the community, something Schneidt-Hill is especially passionate about since her desire is to minister to the unchurched in her area.


In Amish country, where one of the main economic drivers is tourism, drawing from several audiences means even bigger crowds. During the second Saturday in November, Gospel Bookstore hosts a special Amish fiction event with 35-45 authors. Hochstetler schedules radio and newspaper ads to position the event as a chance to get Christmas shopping done early with books that not only provide a bit of the local flavor Holmes County, Ohio, is known for, but also that are personally autographed for the recipient. Although Hochstetler hosts author signings representing a variety of fiction categories throughout the year, this is by far his store’s biggest. 

“We find that readers just love to talk to the author and that their experiences create discussion all year long,” Hochstetler said. “When Beverly Lewis was here, she talked about how she writes in a room with no windows and no clock to help her stay focused on her writing, and people still talk about that. I’ll overhear them telling another customer that in the store.”

Another event, held the Saturday after the fourth of July at the peak of tourism season, is the annual Cookbook Extravaganza. Inspired by the 8-foot-by-5-foot section that is the centerpiece of the store and filled with local cookbooks, the event works well for tourists and locals alike. 

PajamaWomenGospel Book Store invites 20-25 of the Mennonite and Amish women whose recipes are featured in the cookbooks to come and make samples of recipes for tasting and hold voting for cookbook of the year. Three years in and with attendance running 200-300 people per year, Hochstetler said: “I keep having people come up to me saying ‘Have you been doing this the whole time and I’ve just missed it? This is incredible!’ ” 

It’s an event that he says tourists go crazy for, but he also knows it’s a chance to bring some well-deserved local recognition to the women whose work would otherwise sit on a shelf waiting to be discovered.


Another observation retailers made is that events and promotions must be scheduled strategically during the seasons outside of Christmas. 

For one, Bill Ballou, co-owner of The Solid Rock in Kearney, Neb., believes in keeping it simple. 

“A lot of times, we’ll choose anywhere from our top 50-100 customers and send them a special coupon for an occasion like Valentine’s Day or another gift-giving occasion,” he said. 

Look at the calendar and see what ways you can capitalize on a time with buying potential that would otherwise be a time for average sales at your store.

Schneidt-Hill also went off the well-worn path to create an event that has fit nicely into their spring lineup—a style show called “She Shopped Promises.” Scheduled right before Easter, the event is also positioned to capitalize on gift-giving purchases not just for Easter, but also for Mother’s Day, graduation season and Administrative Professionals Day. 

At the show, models take to the stage with baskets themed for gardening, the enjoyment of tea and other pastimes. 

“Once the models finish showing off the products we describe, they hand their baskets to someone in the audience, and that way, customers have a chance to examine the products close up as the baskets circulate,” Schneidt-Hill said.


There’s no consensus on how long a promotion should run, and one of the keys to success can be found in assessing how exclusive or special the event needs to be in order to be effective. 

Vicki Geist, co-owner of Cedar Springs Christian Store in Knoxville, Tenn., reported that one of her store’s historically strong promotions is its annual summer fiction sale. The “Buy 2, Get 1 Free” deal is the name of the game from Memorial Day through Labor Day. With the sale also including children’s and Young Adult fiction, it’s a good match for other summer-long reading programs in the local area and also provides church and community libraries a chance to stock up as well.

But the opposite is true for Schneidt-Hill. When she plans the store’s Christmas premiere event each year the Thursday before Thanksgiving, her store closes during the day and opens 6 p.m.-9 p.m. 

“Choosing to close in preparation for the event adds that extra touch of specialness and mystique to the whole thing,” she said. “We’ve always found that in a busy season, having it early enough and on one special night makes it a real destination for customers.” 

And after 20 years, it’s a formula that seems to be working well for Promises.


For Schneidt-Hill, another benefit of hosting the event early in the season is that it gives time to ask the big questions. 

“After the event, we take time to debrief and ask among our team what sold and didn’t, what ways of staging products seemed to work, what should be moved, what do we anticipate a strong demand for and those kinds of things,” she said. “It really helps us assess how we can be best prepared for the Christmas shopping season and sometimes highlights things that surprise even us because we took the time to reflect on how to make it better.”

Hochstetler also encourages stores to give an event at least three years if they’re on the fence about whether or not it’s been worthwhile.

“Often it takes at least that long for an annual event to peak,” he said.


Hochstetler and Schneidt-Hill also agree that it’s good to keep a regular roster of events. Not every event has to be big, but the key is to keep people thinking of your store as a place worth checking out on a regular basis. Promises has some kind of promotion going on once a week with events once a month, while Gospel Bookstore’s calendar includes a blend of book signings, sales and community events each week on average. 

Ballou is a fan of author signings, as is Hochstetler. A signing for Heaven Is for Real (Thomas Nelson) in March netted the biggest day of sales The Solid Rock has ever had, even beating Saturdays in December. Ballou also looks at signings as an opportunity for more than just one title as, he said, “less than half the store volume on a signing day is in sales of the title being signed.” Often, Ballou notes, that’s due in part to such events drawing customers who are new to the store and seeing the store’s product selection for the first time.

Hochstetler believes that one of the keys to promoting signings is promoting them as the “national release” around the book’s publication date. Doing so gives customers the feeling they’re part of something bigger than just your store. He also advises that it’s good to take the long view.

“We can’t live by just that one day [of the signing],” he said. “We often sell as many books the following two weeks as we do the day of a signing, so I like to have an author sign a bit of stock to have on hand as well.” 


Several retailers told Christian Retailing that they hosted workshops or luncheons catering to various staff positions within the church. 

Ballou’s store hosts an Administrative Assistant day for church staff, as does Cedar Springs Christian Store where Geist says they often have church secretaries calling to RSVP even before the invitation goes out by email. She says her store has been fortunate to have participation from a number of vendors who donate product toward goody bags that each attendee gets to take home, along with a prize drawing for packs of books or sets of CDs wrapped in scarves as well as larger grand prizes for among the 100 or so attendees. A featured speaker and breakfast catered by the local Chick-fil-A make the event complete. Not only does the event bring new and returning customers into the store to see what’s new, but it also generates plenty of positive word of mouth in the area for the store. 

“This is the one event we get more cards and emails back on, thanking us, than at an other time of the year,” Geist said. “These ladies often tell us that they don’t feel that appreciated any other time of the year, so we know it means a lot to them.”

Dorothy Alford, owner of Parables in Omaha, Neb., has been reworking the product mix in her store in the last few years, with promotions following suit. Shifting from church product being placed throughout the store to being put together in one room meant that she also stepped up the focus on promoting the store to churches. 

While emails go out about sales, Alford believes it’s the personal touch that really matters. 

“Our staff will sometimes call various churches if there’s a sale running on a particular book or Bible that would make a great bulk purchase for gift-giving occasions like Mother’s Day or graduation,” she said. 

This also fits in with an expanded gift area, providing plenty for churches and customers to consider when they stop by the store.

Sometimes, it’s as simple as thinking through ways to meet the most basic needs of customers and get them into the store. Arrowhead Parable Christian Store in Johnson City, N.Y., sponsored a gas giveaway for two weeks in May. Every $10 spent in-store earned customers an entry to win one of five gas cards worth $50-$150 in value. Paul Kuntz, store manager, wanted more than just a giveaway though, so there’s a “Come Back Sale Event” being held with 10%-40% off purchases on the day of the prize drawing. 

Other events that Cedar Springs holds include meet-up luncheons once a quarter for youth pastors (one of the best attended), children’s ministry leaders and church librarians. Geist is able to use the store’s relative proximity to Nashville to occasionally bring in new artists for the events, but also uses technology to fill the gap between the store’s location and where authors or artists are located. She’s hosted a number of authors on Skype to talk about their books and also looks at events as a valuable way to share the information church librarians are looking for on new and upcoming book and DVD releases. Adding events with groups of local authors, which provide better results than one-author signings, several times a year rounds out her roster.

Cedar Springs Christian Store also took advantage of the release of The Bible miniseries this spring to place 30-second commercials highlighting pre-sales. 

“We got a surprisingly strong response with quite a few people calling the store and saying, ‘I didn’t know you were carrying that!’ and we were also surprised that it didn’t cost as much as we thought it might to advertise through our local cable provider,” Geist said.

Hochstetler encourages retailers to be smart about making sure that promotions centered around popular or well-known products like The Bible always promote the store strategically as well.


Another popular event that The Solid Rock has done each year for the last 15 years is a Bible Reading Marathon. It is scheduled to start the Sunday evening before the National Day of Prayer and end that Thursday around noon. 

“We’ve had good success over the years with various church groups, Bible studies and Christian schools signing up for blocks of time, as well as individuals,” Ballou said. “Since the store is the hub, but isn’t open 24 hours a day, we post a watchman during the marathon who can let scheduled readers in as needed during that time.”

Ballou also watches for opportunities to simply be involved in the community, even if there’s no a direct sales correlation, believing that being involved is always good for business. Recently, the store hosted a drive to be tested for stem-cell matches to help a woman who is undergoing cancer treatments. They’ve also worked with their local Rotary Club on the Rotary Books for the World campaign to collect books that will be shipped overseas, many to Southern Africa. 

So, what else can keep your promotion planning on track? Here are six more principles for successful promotions:

Know your goal. If it’s to increase brand awareness, make sure that the full line you carry of a brand is given prominent placement in the store and in advertising. If it’s collecting email addresses from customers, make sure that the incentives to do that don’t get lost. Center every part of your promotion around a single goal for maximum success.

Balance traffic drivers with profit generators. The ideal mix for a promotion doesn’t just include doorbuster-style sales, but also lends itself to companion products that will help generate revenue.

Make it interactive. If all customers do is come into the store and browse, they may get bored and leave without making a purchase. If you’re hosting an open house, staff the refreshments or help children and their parents with special activities. Harness the power of being in a specialty store to create opportunities to strike up conversations with customers.

Thank customers. Track entries to contests or participation in a promotion and take a few moments to send a thank-you via email or even a handwritten card to top customers. It’s a small gesture that can mean a great deal to loyal customers.

Rather than discounts, try “value-added” promotions. How could you work with one or more local retailers to offer something unique like a special ornament or a flower giveaway near Mother’s Day? While it does require a small budget, you can create a win-win by making it about more than just dollars-off and purchase from other local retailers who may also be able to provide good pricing in exchange for creating more promotion for their products as well.

Take advantage of buying patterns. The Bookery in Mansfield, Ohio, does this by sponsoring Vacation Bible School workshops with representatives from curriculum publishers on hand to debut the latest programs and provide sales tips. 

As a Christian retailer with these suggestions in mind, you can find your own ways to work within the buying patterns of local churches, ministries and customers in your area.