|Helping stores face uncertain times|
|Written by Cathy Hickling|
|Tuesday, 05 May 2015 03:32 PM America/New_York|
Distributors serve key role in the evolving Christian products industry
The late Bob Whitaker Sr. committed his life to Christ in the 1960s after reading David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade. Filled with zeal for his newfound faith and deep gratitude for the burgeoning Christian book industry, he began buying books and giving them away by the hundreds.
“My dad’s mission was to reach souls with the gospel the way Jesus reached him—through Christian books,” said Bob Whitaker Jr., president of Whitaker Corporation. “Eventually his mission consumed so much time and so many resources he decided to go into the Christian book business.”
In 1970, Bob Whitaker Sr. founded the Christian distribution and publishing company that would become Anchor Distributors and Whitaker House. Bob Jr., a teenager at the time, grew up with the Christian book business, gleaning insights regarding the business model that would allow the fledgling industry to flourish.
“The same year my father went into business, 1970, Hal Lindsey released The Late Great Planet Earth, which sold millions of copies and crossed over to the mainstream market,” Bob Whitaker said. “Marabel Morgan’s Total Woman became a best-selling pop-culture phenomenon not long afterwards. Contemporary Christian music was swiftly rising in popularity, and there was a growing demand for Christian gift items—T-shirts, pins, ‘Jesus Loves You’ bumper stickers and key chains. Suddenly there were thousands of products clamoring for space on bookstore shelves.”
This is where the role of the distributor became essential to the growth of the industry, Bob Whitaker said.
“With both a new publishing company and distribution arm, it became clear to my father how important a good distributor was to the success of any specific book, to the new stores and the Christian book industry as a whole. He was developing a great line of Whitaker House titles by authors that expected their books to appear in as many bookstores as possible. In order to do that, the distribution side had to be successful.”
The choices bookstores had for stocking products were not much different then than they are today.
“Stores can buy directly from individual publishers and manufacturers with the advantage usually being a higher discount than what they’d get from a distributor like Anchor, Ingram and STL,” Bob said. “The trouble is, without the benefit of a distributor, stores have to broker deals individually with publishers and manufacturers. The investment in time, paperwork, individual shipping charges and varying credit and returns options makes this choice impractical for smaller, independent stores.
“When my father went into business, there may have been a total of 10,000 Christian titles available. Now that number’s grown exponentially with 10,000 or more new titles released every year. Add to that thousands of music and gift products, and a store owner or manager is often faced with the daunting task of ordering inventory without knowing what’s hot and what’s not. Helping stores to stock their shelves while minimizing risk is just one of the services a distributor can provide.”
Mark Phillips, vice president of sales and marketing for Elizabethton, Tennessee-based Send The Light (STL) Distribution, concurs, pointing out that STL has thousands of products, including books, Bibles, toys, church supplies and “the largest selection of homeschool and education products under one roof.”
Vendors also have discovered the benefits of working with a distributor.
“Standard partners only with two distributors—Anchor and STL—to serve the CBA stores,” said Stewart McMeeking, vice president of sales for Standard Publishing. “This works very well for us.”
McMeeking visited Anchor recently to present Anchor buyer Kirk Kowalkowski with Standard’s new products and discuss joint promotional efforts for the Standard Lesson Study Bible (NIV).
“It’s especially good to have support from the distributor in helping to get the word out on projects like this,” McMeeking said.
When Sharon and Greg Culbertson felt God calling them to open a Christian retail store, they recognized the advantages a Christian distributor could offer.
“We’d researched the market and even took a class at the local college before deciding which direction to go,” said Greg, who previously worked as a buyer for The 700 Club.
Sharon, who worked for two Christian bookstores in Virginia Beach, Virginia, said their business plan was to “go broad but not deep,” offering a wide selection without stocking large quantities.
“It came down to praying about every aspect of opening the store, with Jesus guiding us every step along the way. And Jesus can be very bossy,” Sharon said.
The Culbertsons called upon the services of Anchor Distributors when they decided to open Blessings Christian Bookstore in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley—serving a different demographic mix than they were used to in Virginia Beach.
“Our Anchor rep did her homework,” Sharon said. “She researched the community and consumer base, and made good recommendations. Greg and I tweaked it over a couple weeks, but Blessings basically went into business based on Anchor’s expertise.”
The Culbertsons opened their store with $15,000 worth of product. Sharon said she and Greg selected $1,000 worth of books and gift items. The remaining $14,000 budget was entrusted to Anchor.
“Anchor basically provided us with a bookstore in a box—well, actually, it arrived in 51 boxes,” Sharon said.
Ten years later, the Culbertsons continue to rely on Anchor to stock their shelves and believe they are “incredibly blessed” in their relationship with the distributor.
“One of the greatest advantages is that we don’t need to have excess inventory on hand,” Sharon said. “Through Anchor, we can order anything and usually have it on our shelves within 24 hours. It’s almost like having their warehouse in stock.”
Whitaker Corp. Vice President John Whitaker said the Culbertsons’ experience is a good example of the benefits derived from the store-distributor relationship.
“With thousands of products available from over 400 suppliers and same-day shipping on orders placed by 4 p.m., we’re able to literally serve as a warehouse for stores that require less stock on hand,” John said. “And we offer extended terms and no fees for small orders. These advantages can make the difference between success and failure for smaller stores and those getting started in business.”
Majesty Christian Bookstore in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, owned by Carl and Nancy Miller, on the other hand, utilizes a distributor primarily for backlist orders. Majesty’s well-stocked shelves of best-selling Christian titles are ordered directly from a handful of publishers.
Carl pointed out that Majesty receives a “significant discount” by ordering new books in large quantities from the top publishers rather than by going through a distributor. In business since 1991, Majesty’s selection of gift items also are ordered at a high-enough volume straight from the manufacturers to garner a greater discount than what the distributors can offer.
“With the large quantity of books and products we sell, the impact of a couple-percent discount from the publisher over what the distributors offer translates into thousands of dollars annually,” Miller said.
Lee Yeckel, director of sales for Whitaker Corporation, said that in the long run, most stores benefit from using the services of a distributor because of “the time and effort that goes into dealing with multiple suppliers.”
Yeckel says the Christian retail industry is at a critical crossroad that isn’t the result of e-books or Internet sales.
“When industries mature, the only way for them to survive is to take costs out of the supply chain,” he said. “Our Christian book and gift industry is at that point where survival depends on reducing supply chain costs. The best way to do that is to put in a good distributor to work with numerous manufacturers going to multiple retail outlets. The benefit of using a distributor for the retailer is they can consolidate their spending.”
Bob Whitaker Jr. acknowledges that the decline in recent years of the number of Christian retail stores open for business and the consolidation of publishing companies into a handful of megacompanies could be seen as ominous signs. But he sees hope through the growing product lines and best-sellers like The Shack that defy the odds to touch millions of lives.
“You never know when God will use another self-published book by an unknown author like William P. Young who turned the publishing world on its ear with The Shack or what trendy product Christians will be wearing to proclaim their faith,” Bob said. “I was astounded to learn our warehouse can’t keep enough ‘You Are My Sunshine’ pillows in stock to meet the current demand.”
Phillips said STL is likewise hopeful for the future, seeing areas of growth in book sales and a growing consumer demand for a wider variety of products.
“We’re recommending that more retailers consider expanding their product selection to include church supplies, toys and gifts, since these are product lines that cannot be easily found on Amazon or in big box retailers like Walmart,” Phillips said.
Bob Whitaker Jr. believes that retailers who keep their ears and eyes open to the opportunities and trends while also listening to their customers will do well.
“The backbone of the Christian book industry is not much different than it was when my father started in business,” Bob said. “I’m talking about the open-minded ‘mom and pop’ stores with hearts to serve their customers and their communities.
“Christian retailers who have learned to adapt through recent changing times not only will survive, but can thrive if they’re able to minimize costs and maximize profits,” Bob said. “This can be best accomplished, I believe, through utilizing the services of a good Christian distributor.”