|Serving the local church|
|Written by Christine D. Johnson|
|Tuesday, 08 October 2013 10:20 AM America/New_York|
Meeting congregational needs grows sales but requires strong relationships
Former Baptist pastor Scott Gabrielson knows how valuable church supplies can be to a Christian retail store—knocking out most online competitors for the business and providing a healthy return on investment.
Gabrielson, president of Blue Ridge Church Furniture in Rocky Mount, Va., has a store himself, but doesn’t want to course the business through his Church Mart location alone. He’s trying to share the wealth and, in the process, build up Christian retail stores across the country. He emphasizes that Blue Ridge does not sell direct-to-church, but through Christian retail stores only.
Partnering with Send the Light Distribution, Blue Ridge carries supplies from chairs to steeples to portable baptisteries along with minister’s robes and communion cups.
Blue Ridge has “worked with and furnished more than 16,000 churches,” Gabrielson said.
Church Mart “ships 10,000 church chairs every month,” he said, so he knows just how much business is there for the taking. He also keeps samples on hand so that churches can borrow them to take to committee meetings.
Jack Savage of Jack’s Church Supplies in Salisbury, Md., is a 54-year veteran in the church supplies business, carrying inventory “from staples to steeples.” Savage wants to see other stores get into it as well, but, he said, some are afraid to take measurements on particular products.
“For years I’ve encouraged stores in this direction,” he told Christian Retailing. “We have Christian bookstores that customers come in and ask for something and they give them our card, and it’s something they can order very easily themselves, like robes, but they’re afraid to get a robe in that’s the wrong size.”
WHO TO KNOW
If a store wants to serve the local church, they must get the word out and establish relationships with churches.
“Knowing the pastor is good, but you’ve got to get in with the secretary,” Savage said. After the pastor says to get a certain product, “she’s the one that makes all the decisions.”
Because the church secretary decides whether to order from a distributor, retailer or online, it’s important that stores ensure they are top-of-mind for any type of product, from Christmas bulletins to offering envelopes to thank-you gifts for volunteers. To establish a relationship with church secretaries, Savage suggests taking them out to lunch and connecting with an association of church secretaries.
Tom Lacey, church resource director at Cedar Springs Christian Stores in the Knoxville, Tenn., area also knows the value of church-store relationships.
“The best way to connect with churches is to build personal relationships,” Lacey said. “It is also the best way for the local Christian store to meet a need that the Internet never can. To the Internet, each customer is just a transaction. To us, each customer is a partner in ministry to send the message of Christ into our community and build disciples.”
Informing congregations that your store carries church supplies—and what kind—is also critical. Blue Ridge encourages retailers to advertise through store signage and distribute brochures to area churches with their store label. The company also gives its partner stores a “very nice binder with product information” with examples of how to measure for certain items like church pews, Gabrielson said, and makes DVD training videos available for stores.
Munce Group has a church supplies catalog that, this year, features products from Murphy Robes to Rose Publishing and more.
Covenant Group also offers an annual church supplies catalog. Billed by Chuck Wallington, founder of Covenant and president of Christian Supply in Spartanburg, S.C., as “the most complete compilation of church supplies available anywhere,” the catalog is published in mid-September and reaches more than 60,000 churches.
WHAT TO STOCK
Retailers who are a bit brave or don’t mind measuring may wish to consider getting into selling church pews, but those who are afraid to get measurements wrong even on choir robes may not want to get that deep into church supplies.
Gabrielson and Savage also sell carpet to churches.
“You’d be surprised how easy it can be to figure these things out,” Gabrielson said.
Savage partners with a local carpet dealer to meet church needs in this area.
Overall, it’s not as important as it used to be to keep any and all church supplies in stock.
“When I used to order communion cups, I would get 100,000 at a time. Well, that’s expensive, a chunk of money. Now I can get three boxes, and when I sell those, order, and I have them the next day from Anchor.”
Karen Keisler, marketing manager at Anchor Distributors, says that her company is “by far the strongest distributor of church supplies,” representing more than 35 vendors and more than 5,800 items, including anointing oils, candles, pew Bibles, communion elements and church bulletins. Anchor produces a church supplies catalog and special item-search tool on its website.
“Having a strong communion section builds that relationship with the local church,” said Tim Jordan, speciality marketing strategist at Broadman Church Supplies. “You know you’re going to see them often. You’re kind of creating the destination for churches to come.”
“They need to have communion cups in stock, they need to have several minister robes hanging on the wall somewhere,” Savage said.
Savage also suggested that stores buying envelopes for churches may wish to do business with the National Church Solutions based in Chester, W.Va. The company puts the church’s name on the envelope so every time a church-goer uses one, he is reminded of how to contact the church.
Savage sees candles as very important to have on hand, and believes stores need to sell flags as well.
Spring Arbor is another distributor that Christian retailers can use for church supplies.
“Ingram’s Spring Arbor has become an important resource for Christian stores and organizations because of our just-in-time, no minimum order quantity buying options,” said Shawn Everson, chief commercial officer, Ingram Content Group. “Customers of Spring Arbor can stock what they need, in the quantities that best suit their needs.
“As the only Christian wholesaler with four strategically located distribution centers located in Nashville, Tenn., Roseburg, Ore., Chambersburg, Pa., and Fort Wayne, Ind., Ingram/Spring Arbor can deliver supplies quickly, so that retailers and organizations have the products they need to meet demand rather than needing to invest as heavily in on-hand inventory.”
Send The Light (STL) sees church supplies as a significant way to build up Christian retail stores.
“This is a category that STL identified as being one of the growth categories of the future, and consequently we have invested more resources into building this important genre and are proud to report that we have the most church supply products of any distributor with over 6,000 SKUs,” said Mark Phillips, vice president of sales and marketing at STL.“We also have a dedicated church supply microsite within the STL main site which offers special promotions, fliers for stores to download and use with their local churches, merchandising tips, special promotions and much more. We are also in an exclusive relationship with Blue Ridge Church Furniture and offer a full range of church furniture through our website.
With launch of the microsite and various STL initiatives like the Premier Partners program set up earlier this year to help its retail partners grow their church supply revenues through extra discounts, planograms and flyers, the category “has shown significant growth,” Phillips said. “We work very closely with over 50 vendors that carry church supplies and particularly with the larger church supply vendors like Broadman, Artistic, Abingdon and Warner.”
STL also has one staff member dedicated to working with retail partners in church supplies “so that we are giving them the resource tools they need to build this category,” said Phillips, who also pointed to “some exciting new programs” that are coming down the pike for the New Year.
Innovative, which many stores use for Signature Websites, also privately brands church supplies for stores.
Troy Hurst, church marketing sales and marketing director, said Innovative has a 240-page church supplies catalog, used by Victory Church Products in the Asheville, N.C., area as well as the Mardel chain.
Through Innovative, stores can give churches online tools to shop thousands of products, accessing recommended resources, extensive product information and product samples. Churches can make their purchases in store, by phone or online with 24-hour shipping.
Innovative also hosts 45-minute webinars for retailers each week on topics such as how to grow profits or build relationships with churches. Additionally, the company offers three seasonal catalog pieces: spring for Vacation Bible School and Easter products; fall for curriculum; and Christmas for holiday, candles, devotionals and gifts.
“We are very intentional in including promotions in our Retailer Church Marketing Programs, the opportunity for retailers to promote and sell church resources at very market-competitive pricing,” Innovative President Larry Haege told Christian Retailing.
The 2014 Church Supplies Catalog includes church promotions with Bibles, student resources and leadership resources with case lot or other quantity pricing specifically for the church.
“Christian retailers recognize the tremendous importance of reengaging with the church,” Haege said. “While many retailers have served the church for several years, others are just now making renewed efforts to serve the church, recognizing not only the importance of selling the church institutional products, but making sure church leadership is sending their members to the local store, rather than to a dot.com to purchase their resources.”
Gwynne Watkins, director of communications at Warner Press, said the church supplies category seems to be growing the most in “resources that can be used outside of worship services or by specific ministries of the church,” she said.
For example, Warner has begun publishing “Care & Share” encouragement books, which include scripture, devotions, and inspirational quotes and stories. The books speak to different themes and were made “with church use in mind, especially for card ministries and for those doing visitation,” Watkins said.
“We strongly believe that stores who work to build relationships with their local churches are making a good investment in their future, which is why we have made our Weekly Worship Bulletin service available for stores to offer to their church customers,” Watkins said. “Churches enroll in the service through the store to purchase their worship bulletins on a quarterly basis, and the store gets a commission on the sale every quarter. Churches find this to be a convenient way to purchase their bulletins, and the store has a new, ongoing revenue stream without having to take on more inventory.”
WHAT TO ADD
Noteworthy among church supply offerings are some key, new products, including updated designs in podiums and advances in communion consumables.
“The newest type of product is metal podiums, truss-style podiums,” Gabrielson said.
Such podiums are made of lightweight aluminum material. Gabrielson expects the new style to replace the acrylic podiums that have been popular for about 20 years.
Smaller items that have seen changes, but may be thought of as even more important because of the command of Jesus—to remember His death—are communion bread/wafer and juice.
Swanson has brought gluten-free bread to the market, while others haven’t seen demand for it despite the media attention now given to those who require or desire a gluten-free diet.
Innovative has seen strong sales for Swanson’s gluten-free product, with Hurst reporting that “they sell out fast.”
Swanson is also now in the church envelope business.
Broadman Church Supplies puts out a wide range of church supplies, including bulletins, offering bags and a full line of communion supplies—“from empty cups to the different varieties of bread to the new pre-filled cups,” Jordan said.
Newer among them are the Fellowship Cup (juice and wafer), introduced in 2012, and the Remembrance Cup (juice and bread), introduced at this year’s International Christian Retail Show. The Fellowship Cup is stacked and employs two seals, one for the juice and one for the wafer, while the Remembrance Cup is sealed once with the juice and bread side by side in separate compartments.
“Churches are responding favorably” to the pre-filled formats in part for the sake of convenience, and baskets can be used instead of hardware for the prefilled cups, Jordan said. For those concerned about children or the elderly, the seals on the cups are easy to open, but tight enough so that they don’t leak.
“Both our prefilled cups have a freshness guarantee,” he said, also noting their long shelf life.
Pre-filled options are fitting for any size group, from Bible study groups to megachurch congregations.
“Doing communion off-site, the prefilleds are great,” Jordan said. “Or if you’re a large church, a megachurch, you can imagine the prep times for that. It’s [also] great for hospital visits for pastors to take.”
The Compak Companies has made the Celebration Cup, a prefilled communion cup, for several years.
“We supply some of the larger chain stores directly,” said Robert Johnson, Compak president. “However, we do have a distributor relationship with Swanson Church Supplies.”
Although store sales are slower than usual in what Celebration says is “a very competitive environment,” the company is has “seen a consistent growth pattern over the past 18 months.”
Compak also has started to offer other items such as communion ware and gloves.
WHAT TO TAKE TO THE BANK
There is money to be made in church supplies. Local competition is limited or nonexistent, and Internet retailers are unlikely to capture much of the business in this category.
Savage told retailers at Christian Product Expo in September that he recently made $700 profit on one pulpit, and with a $6,800 ticket on 100 church chairs, he made approximately $1,200 profit. Custom-made parament sets and baptisteries also can yield a healthy profit.
Cedar Springs also has found financial benefit in serving the local church well and keeps as much inventory on hand as possible.
“[We] try to maintain inventory depth in consumable product areas where last-minute needs can be met,” Lacey said. “Some areas like pews or other higher-priced altar furniture would be addressed by catalog rather than inventory due to cost, lower turn rates and style variations.”
Cedar Springs has expanded this category “by staff, inventory selection and marketing, due to this being our most important customer,” he said. “As less foot traffic comes through our front doors we must be proactive to survive and grow our business. Doing this means direct marketing to our area churches and church visits from knowledgeable staff.
“Talk to customers for specific needs, visit the churches, direct market by emails you’ve collected or host ministry events in your store,” Lacey advises. “Each of these ways will gain quantity sales for now and win an advocate later that sees your community value and wants you to survive for the future.”