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Written by Natalie Gillespie   
Tuesday, 13 May 2014 02:31 PM America/New_York

New pope, new media draws fresh attention to products for Catholic customers

LentAtEphesusCDAfter a year of big changes for the Roman church, Catholic retailers hope the positive media attention and popularity of the new pope will translate into sales. Pope Francis was inaugurated in March 2013; former popes John Paul II and John XXIII were canonized in April, and media outlets are reporting that lapsed Catholics have begun asking themselves if it is time to return to the church. The changes are galvanizing sales of some Catholic products, but will it drive enough customers to buy at brick-and-mortar stores?

“The church is alive and well, faith is alive and well, but it’s tough to have a Catholic store,” said Bob Balk, owner of the 10-year-old St. George Catholic Books and Gifts in Blaine, Minn. “Costs are up; margins are down. The first eight years, we were up 20-30% every year. The last two years, sales have been flat, and it looks like they’ll be flat this year.”

LoyolaPress_TheChurchOfMercyCindi McNiff shopped at Ave Maria Catholic Gifts in Brandon, Fla., for more than 10 years before she started working there as a sales associate a decade ago. She has seen sales slow in the last few years.

“It is very difficult, I think, mostly because people can go online,” McNiff said. “They no longer want to be able to touch and see items before they buy.”

Catholic retailers agree that the downturn in the economy, the rise of Internet sales and the fact that publishers are selling direct to consumers equal a triple whammy. 

Sarah Ryan and Teresita Calderon opened three Advent Shop stores in New York in the past nine years. While they plan to keep the stores open, Ryan says it takes a lot of work and creative effort to give customers a reason to shop in-store.

McVan-RosaryBeads“We have to work a lot harder to give customers more reason to come in,” Ryan said. “It’s not enough to have good product; they can get product anywhere. We have to make our stores more of a place where they want to connect.”

Connection points occur throughout the year, as Catholic sales tend to be cyclical. Baby gifts remain perennial sellers, as are crosses and wall art. 

“Demand for products, in our case, Bibles, is tied directly to liturgical and sacramental occasions,” said Mark Brosz of Fireside Catholic Publishing. “Lent is a season of renewal with many more Catholics attending church, but also most confirmations occur in the spring. With a larger number of people active in their faith, they tend to get interested in products that address personal study and growth. Confirmation, being a sacramental occasion, is traditionally a time for gift-giving.  Both of these trigger needs for all types of gifts, particularly traditional gifts such as Bibles, crucifixes and rosaries. 

“Weddings are not performed during the Lenten season, so after Lent and Easter, we see the beginning of the wedding season,” he added. “As another sacramental event, weddings are an important gift-giving occasion. A traditional gift purchased as a wedding gift is a family Bible. Over the summer and into fall, Catholic schools purchase Bibles for religion classes and churches purchase Bibles for confirmation classes, youth groups and Bible study. Advent and Christmas trigger another gift-giving season.”

Catholic Bibles remain perennial sellers, with Fireside Catholic Wedding Bible expected to move well this season. But as book sales have gone online to a greater degree, Catholic stores have shifted their inventory to rely more on gift sales. 

“We’ve noticed that Catholic stores are moving about 10 points in their product mix toward gifts and art, and that’s easy in the Catholic world to do because there are so many lines,” said Alan Napleton, president of the Catholic Marketing Network. “Plus, that 10% move came rather quickly.”

“Catholic stores right now do seem to be trending towards gifts, including the more traditional rosaries, and we have a very popular line of pillowcases,” said Michelle Sylvestro, vice president of sales at Catholic Word, a publisher and marketing group for more than 30 companies. “I think a lot of people go into Catholic stores for a gift because they are unsure about what would be an appropriate gift for first communion or confirmation. It seems to be the trend in Catholic stores that they are not selling as many books; they are selling more rosaries.”

“Catholic retailing is not a field of dreams, that ‘if you build it, they will come,’ ” said Chris Weickert, outgoing director of the Catholic Retailers Association and owner of 

Weickert owned a physical store in Rockford, Ill., for years before selling it in 2013 in order to concentrate on his online business. 

“Retailers today have to work hard to be visible to their customers,” he said. “Consider over the last five years the change in face time given over to looking at cell phones, Facebook and other electronic tools. If a store is not present in those areas, it will lose that attention.”

But, Weickert said, it’s challenging for a store to be all things to all people. Trying to run a physical retail location, maintain a vibrant social-media presence and fill orders placed on an online site can each be full-time jobs. That has shifted the Catholic store landscape.

“My read of the Catholic market is that it may be stable in its size and reach, but changing in its composition,” he said. “Online sales and publishers direct-to-consumer marketing are shifting a meaningful percentage of consumer sales out of local stores. Five years ago, few publishers offered direct-to-consumer websites or made direct-to-parish sales except in curriculum products. Today, virtually all have websites where consumers can buy direct, often at discounts.”


One bright spot for Catholic retailers is the new pope and the positive press he is receiving. Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope, the first pope from the Americas, the first pope to take ‘selfies’ with his adoring fans and the first pope ever to take the name Francis (after Saint Francis of Assisi). In his first year as head of the Roman church, the media marveled as he lived humbly.

Now, prayer cards bearing his image, books written by the him, rosaries with his image as a centerpiece and the Pope Francis papal cross are giving retailers a boost.

“Each pope designs his own style of cross, and Pope Francis’ cross is very popular,” McNiff said. “We go directly to companies in Italy for these items, and we look for different types of items, anything that is sanctioned by the Vatican with the papal seal.”

Rather than pointing to one or two favorite wholesale companies, retailers stress the importance of researching wholesalers on the Internet and traveling to Italy to buy direct to offer a unique product mix.

“Products related to first communion and confirmation are the areas where we are also seeing interest, especially products that bring faith to young people in a way they can connect,” Weickert said. “For example, some of the more contemporary jewelry designs by McVan Inc. and the newer covers on the Bibles from Catholic Book Publishing. The ‘have it my way’ attitude in our culture seems to be driving personalization of items as a growing consumer interest.”

McVan manufactures and imports religious jewelry, including pearl, crystal and carved wood rosaries. The company also recently introduced a line of modern jewelry that includes leather and corded bracelets with metal crosses.

“We just added some beautiful crystal rosaries to our collection,” said Debbie Lee, sales associate for McVan. “In spring, we’re heavy with communion items and RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults]  adults coming into the Catholic church at this time and making their confirmation. We do sterling crosses and Holy Spirit medals. We also have a beautiful baby line, bracelets, and we’re seeing a lot of interest in our higher-end rosaries.”

De Montfort, which specializes in sacred music, publishes the famed Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, a group of young nuns living north of Kansas City. Mo.

Having won major media attention, the nuns saw both of their previous recordings debut at No. 1 on Billboard’s Classical Traditional Chart. Now, Lent at Ephesus (February) had first-week sales that surpassed all of their prior sales successes. The Benedictines also have outsold artists on Traditional and Crossover Charts, including the likes of The Piano Guys and Il Divo.

There also have been many books written about Pope Francis as well as by him. Retailers may want to consider stocking titles by Pope Francis such as The Church of Mercy (Loyola Press, April), the debut collection of writings from his first year as pontiff, and Lumen Fidei: The Light of Faith (Image, November 2013). 


Beyond gifts, Catholic stores help customers grow spiritually by stocking books and programs that aid in faith formation. 

“When it comes to religious education and sacraments, there are rules Catholic churches have to abide by to make sure that every parish is conveying the same content,” said Therese Brown, executive director of the Association of Catholic Publishers. “When you get beyond religious education, there is a lot more freedom.”

Faith formation products are used by individuals, prayer groups and other gatherings that are similar to “small groups” among evangelicals. Ascension Press aims to create contemporary faith-formation programs that incorporate DVDs, workbooks and leader guides.  

“We just released our Chosen confirmation program, which is unlike anything we’ve ever produced in the Catholic market,” said Carolyn Klika, Ascension Press national sales director. “It goes through pre-evangelization, asking questions like ‘What is happiness?’ ‘Why does God allow suffering?’ and ‘Why am I here?’, then explains that we all have to connect personally with God. It then connects them with the church. We call it an apostolic game-changer.”

Klika said a panel of priests, laypeople and youth ministers from all over the world worked on the product.

Chosen for youth released in February, and the title is being released in a general faith-formation version in June for adults. The starter pack includes a DVD, student workbook and leader guide with sponsor and parent guides for youth. 

Ascension releases Momnipotent: The Not-So-Perfect Woman’s Guide to Catholic Motherhood by Danielle Bean in May. The book discusses eight feminine strengths to help moms feel more peace and joy. A blog component will help moms start communicating with each other as they read the book and accompanying journal. An eight-session DVD is also available.

Ascension expanded Jeff Cavins’ best-selling Bible study program The Great Adventure: A Journey Through the Bible with the April releases of the thematic DVD-based study Mary: A Biblical Walk With the Blessed Mother filmed in the Holy Land.  

If there are “celebrities” in Catholicism, priests Jim Martin and Bob Barron are the names to know. Baron’s ministry Word on Fire ( uses radio, TV, YouTube and other media to draw people into or back to the faith. His newest formation program, Priest, Prophet, King, releases in September as a six-session DVD study.

Jesuit priest Jim Martin also employs social media and new media. He uses humor and addresses contemporary issues facing the church. His new book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage,released in March from HarperCollins Publishers.


Stores who are surviving and thriving in the Catholic market tend to be proactive in reaching customers through social media, email and events. They stay in communication with parishes in their local diocese.

“You have to work to stay ‘top of mind’ with your local audience,” Weickert said. “Be involved in your parish. But you also need to be visible when people are looking on the Internet. People don’t look in the phone book under ‘Religious Gifts’ anymore. They Google it. You can claim your basic listing on Google for free. If you haven’t, you are invisible. You can include pictures of your store, hours, location and even coupons.”

“Stores need to get more proactive to meet with success,” Napleton said. “We’re seeing stores do more community outreach, bring in speakers and broaden their evangelization reach,” Napleton said. “They are also going out, getting outside their store and bringing products to events.” 

“Especially during Advent, Lent and Communion seasons, we’ll try to bring items to the church,” McNiff said. “But we also try to generate excitement with special events in the store. For example, we just had a signing with Tony Dungy and his wife.”

Weickert sent a series of three letters to local priests.

“We wanted them to realize who we saw ourselves to be in the community and how it intersected with them bringing people in their parish along in their faith,” he said. “After that, a few made some significant changes, like one who held up a devotional book up in the pulpit and said, ‘If you don’t have a prayer life, this is a great place to start.’ And he told them they could get it across the street at our store. That was a win-win for everybody.”

Beyond connections and events, retailers say the most important thing they do is care about their customers. 

“I love my brick-and-mortar store because I love the hug, the touch, the kiss, the tears,” Ryan said. “In our stores we have a petition bowl, so when people come in we ask how we can pray for them. I think people still need that.”