Christian Retailing

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Written by Deonne Lindsey   
Wednesday, 12 February 2014 04:18 PM America/New_York

Training and service help stores make the grade in selling the Scriptures

TranslationContinuum_CREDIT_HarperCollinsPublishersAdvances in e-book features have made sampling new Bible translations easier, but for most readers, a print edition of the Scriptures remains a must-have. Yet even with the technology many customers have to explore various products, retailers and publishers alike report that the wide variety of translations and formats continues to overwhelm Bible shoppers.


Tony Roca, manager of Morning Star Bookstore in Danbury, Conn., believes that the best way to get a handle on what a customer wants is to take the felt-needs approach to Bible sales. With a heavily family-oriented demographic and a core customer who is most often a middle-aged woman, Roca realizes that the buyer and the reader may be completely different. 

“First, I listen to what they want in a Bible,” he said. “If someone knows exactly what they want, I take them to it. If I feel that what they want isn’t right for whomever they’re buying the Bible for, then I’ll make suggestions of what I think would best fit the situation. If the customer comes in with no clue as to what they want, I tend to sell Bibles I know are great first, then go with the ones I’m neutral towards after that.”

However, Deb Woodard, co-owner of Bethany Book and Gift in Baxter, Minn., believes that an approach that takes into account translation and felt need is a better fit. 

“Most customers are focused on a specific translation, so we follow their lead,” she said. “[But we also] ask lots of questions: Who is the Bible for? Are they already actively reading the Bible or is this a new venture for them? Do they need a larger print size? Are they a good reader or struggling reader? Are they a spiritual seeker or active in ministry and Bible study?” 

Asking such questions helps her and her staff pinpoint Bible features that will serve the reader well.

“We try to introduce new possibilities as well,” Woodard added. 

She and her staff suggest formats that customers might be unaware of that would shed new light on their study of the Scriptures. 

“We probably have a 50/50 mix of customers who know just what they want versus customers who ask a lot of questions,” Woodard said.

“In our area, KJV [King James Version] still makes up about 30% of sales,” said Ken Flanders, owner of The Olive Branch in Duluth, Ga. “We’ve found that we need to establish the translation first to satisfy the KJV shopper. Others looking for the more contemporary translations shop on their own, to a larger degree. [Also,] younger shoppers seem to know less about the translations, but tend to want to shop independently.”

B&H Publishing Group Bible Marketing Manager Tim Jordan said that many retailers have provided similar feedback. 

“[Retailers are asking us to] make sure you have a clear and compelling cover design—a title that tells you exactly what you are getting as well as other copy like key endorsements or features,” Jordan said. 

Realizing that many customers simply want to browse through choices at their leisure, he said, retailers are trying to set up their Bible sections with categories and information that gives customers the tools to make their own decisions. 

In addition, Jordan noted: “The overwhelming majority of bookstores simply do not have the staff on hand at all times to thoughtfully answer questions and [so they] rely heavily on the publisher.”

“It’s a self-service environment, but a strong cover can go a long way in not only educating store employees, but customers as well,” Jordan said. “A clear and compelling message greatly assists the retailer on where to place the Bible and when to promote it.” 

At The Olive Branch, answering customers’ strategic questions to determine whether they are in the market for a study, reference or other type of Bible and then displaying the options by category so they can browse in a narrower selection meets the needs of many shoppers.

At Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Mich., translation is a key factor in finding the right Bible fit for each customer. Louis McBride, Bible buyer for the store, said that having a larger percentage of male customers, drawn to the store’s academic department, as well as the influence of several seminaries in the area makes translation often one of the first questions the staff asks. 

“It is the first question we ask when someone said they want to buy a Bible and most of the time they know exactly which one they want,” McBride said.

Translation, however, is an area where the vast majority of customers may have a preference, but no understanding of how a translation comes into being. Helping store staff grasp some of the choices translations represent on the literal-dynamic equivalence continuum is a step in the right direction, though for some customers without a background in Bible terminology, even those terms can be misunderstood.

Shoppers looking for a Bible “need to understand that ‘literal’ is a reference to closeness of the language structure between the donor language and the receptor language,” said Jeffrey Smith, New Living Translation (NLT) brand director for Tyndale House Publishers. “And they need to know that this closeness or correspondence of language structure in no way guarantees either greater accuracy or greater clarity. In fact, there are many examples where the more literal the translation, the less accurate and certainly less clear the translation may be.”

But getting that understanding down to a few succinct questions and statements useful in conversation with a stumped customer can make all the difference in whether they walk out of the store with a Bible in hand or not.

Mike Peterson, district sales manager for Tyndale, points out that while the different ends of the spectrum tend to be thought of as being more readable (dynamic) or more accurate (literal), such terms miss valuable distinctions. 

“I believe that there are a number of translations where the contributors spend months and many times years working with the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts in an effort to maintain accuracy,” Peterson said. “I refuse to say that any one translation is more accurate than another. What I do say is that there is a large difference in types and levels of readers. Most pastors and professors prefer a literal translation because that is how they study and have been trained to read. They have a gift for making that style of writing come alive to those they teach. On the other hand, probably 90% of the public needs a dynamic translation as they learn to read and fall in love with God’s Word on their own.“

Once the question of translation is out of the way, McBride and the staff try to engage the customer with key questions to help customers determine and prioritize their key needs. 

“Those who don’t have a translation in mind already will usually say they want something ‘easy to read,’ ” McBride explained. “Once we know which translation they want, we ask if they would like a Bible with notes or without notes and that helps narrow the field.  If they want notes, we determine what kind of notes they would like. Are they looking for notes that aid in study or are they more devotional/application oriented? The process is one of elimination and restriction, but it’s extremely helpful to the customer who is often overwhelmed with the sheer variety and number of Bibles available.”


Tyndale-BibleTrainingKitNot surprisingly, a recommendation from the pulpit—or from the front of a Sunday school classroom—carries a significant amount of weight in a customer’s decision-making process. 

“If a pastor recommends or mentions a translation from the pulpit on a Sunday, we are sure to get calls for it on Monday,” said McBride. 

Simply being aware of various denominational or local church preferences, even through customer inquiries and feedback, is key to getting the product mix right. 

For Roca, keeping an eye on what was selling not only helped him get the right product mix for different locations, but also assured he wasn’t missing out on opportunities he would have otherwise overlooked. 

“The NLT doesn’t sell extremely well in our other stores, but because a couple of big churches in our area recommend it, it does here,” the New England store manager said. “I’ve also had to bring in translations that I wouldn’t normally sell because several local churches started asking for them.”

Some retailers make the effort to form strategic relationships with local churches, offering promotions on their preferred translations. 

“We have several churches which care a great deal about what translation their congregation reads,” McBride said. “We have one church that wanted the [congregation] to read the same [translation] that was read from the pulpit. We partnered with the church and they advertised in the church bulletin that they could get a discount on any edition of that particular translation. The church member would simply bring in the bulletin, which acted as a coupon for that sale.” 

Woodard keeps an eye out for any changes in church Bible preferences, but also for the choices of Christian schools in the area.

“ESV [English Standard Version], NIV [New International Version], NLT are all strong and our top three sellers, in that order,” she notes. “Many area churches have switched to ESV in the past several years and that’s obviously had a big impact on our ESV sales. KJV and NKJV [New King James Version] are also consistent sellers. Our local Christian school uses NKJV and KJV.”


While retailers lean heavily on publisher-provided programs as the basis for training employees when they are hired, they also rely on more informal coaching by experienced staff to round out the Bibles-selling knowledge base.

All new employees at Baker Book House are encouraged to go through the Zondervan online training because it provides a good overall grasp of the features and terms connected with selling various Bible products. In addition, since McBride works with new employees on shelving procedures, he has the perfect opportunity to determine how extensive their knowledge is about Bibles. If they need help, McBride works with them one on one.

Of the retailers surveyed, many mentioned using online training and other tools from publishers like Zondervan and Thomas Nelson, as well as Tyndale, preferring these options because they cover so many features and are not limited solely to the translations they publish. 

In addition to Tyndale’s online training, available at—which includes historical information by Bible scholar Donald Brake and practical selling tips—the publisher also offers in-store training for frontline staff along with training for pastors and the store’s customer base. 

Crossway, home of the ESV, also offers training DVDs, said Danny Lee, key account manager.

The online training formerly provided by Zondervan is in the process of being updated now that Zondervan and Thomas Nelson are united under the HarperCollins Christian umbrella 

“We want it to continue to be relevant and effective and, therefore, want to continue to invest in this for our retailers,” said Dylan Hillhouse, vice president, Bible group marketing at HarperCollins Christian Publishing. 

HarperCollins Christian’s online modules ( “cover the basics of the Bible, with sections on topics like translations, Bible types and how to sell, and we attempt to accomplish this in a non-bias way,” said Hillhouse. “We have also created full merchandising solutions, brochures, websites, in-store tools and many other pieces to train on broad subjects like translations and also on very specific product releases.” 

The most significant needs Smith has heard retailers mention are staff training and a chance to experience various Bibles with the one-on-one assistance of a salesperson. 

“Most store owners are so busy they do not get to spend a lot of time with customers,” Smith said. “It is critical that your staff is trained to help shoppers find the right Bible or they will walk out. The sheer volume of translations and products within those translations is overwhelming.” 

Retailers also cited the fact that the HarperCollins training program awards participants free Bibles upon completion of the training.

“We had a music buyer who received an Archeological Study Bible after completing his training,” McBride said. “The more he used it on a daily basis, the more he loved it and felt more comfortable talking about it. He sold more of those Bibles from the music department than we did in the Bible department!” 

Other retailers, including Roca, know how important it is for store staff to take advantage of such training so they can better assist customers.

“The best way to get to know something is to look through it and understand it,” Roca said. “It’s hard to sell something you have no clue about.”

One of the common themes from stores was that the training never really ends because Bible offerings are always evolving. Bethany’s Woodard points out that there’s always something new coming out to be aware of and the best way to learn is through experience, on the floor and through peer-to-peer knowledge. 

“New staff [at Bethany Book and Gift] are encouraged to ‘shadow’ more experienced staff when they’re assisting guests in the Bible department so they can learn from them,” Woodard said. “Every conversation is unique and unusual questions always come up!”