Christian Retailing

Christian market braces for 'soft holiday season' Print Email
Written by Eric Tiansay and Rhonda Sholar   
Monday, 08 December 2008 12:23 PM America/New_York

Publishers, retailers use creative marketing promotions to counter downturn economy

With the economy continuing to struggle, Christian publishers, distributors and retailers are warily optimistic about the upcoming holiday season—tightening purse strings and implementing innovative marketing promotions to entice consumers who continue to pull back on discretionary spending.

Verne Kenney, Zondervan’s executive vice president of sales, said the company “had a solid first quarter,” but was “experiencing softer sales in the first couple weeks of October.”

“While we are in the midst of some very challenging economic times, Zondervan is optimistic about the upcoming holiday season,” Kenney told Christian Retailing.


The company had high hopes for new titles from Karen Kingsbury and John Ortberg as well as the recently released Multiple Blessings by Jon and Kate Gosselin of Jon & Kate Plus 8 fame and an updated version of the NIV Study Bible

“Our five-month ‘Bible Across America’ campaign has been very successful so far and has worked to raise the visibility of the best-selling NIV translation as we celebrate its 30th anniversary,” said Kenney, noting that Zondervan had no plans to cut staff due to the economy.

In another creative marketing campaign, David C. Cook has launched a “Good Read Guaranteed” program to promote its fall fiction releases. The offer—which predated the economic slowdown—allows customers to return a Cook novel to the publisher for a free replacement if they aren’t satisfied with the one they purchased, company officials said.

“This … promotion takes the risk away for consumers in paying … for a book,” said C. Ryan Dunham, senior vice president of sales and marketing for David C. Cook’s global operations. “We are expecting that more consumers would be willing to buy a David C. Cook fiction title.”

Dunham added that Cook was not cutting print runs for the fourth quarter, although the company went through a restructuring several months ago.

“We are well-positioned for the future and have no plans to downsize or cut staff as a reaction to the economy,” Dunham said. “Is this holiday season going to be as strong as we all would like? Probably not. However, I still choose to believe that our products will perform well.”

Tyndale House Publishers Chief Operating Officer Jeff Johnson told Christian Retailing that although the company does not typically release many products during the year’s last quarter, it expected “a softer holiday season.”

“We expect that it will be difficult to hit fourth quarter sales budgets, and we most likely will see a higher percentage of returns during the spring as retail outlets clean out excess inventory they built up (from) the holiday season,” he said. “In terms of our spring line-up, we are being sensitive to retail price points, especially on hardcover bindings.”

David Lewis, director of sales and marketing for Baker Publishing Group, told Christian Retailing that the company expected a good holiday season.

“We are very optimistic about the sales potential of our new releases and backlist titles,” he said. “We know that we will struggle to maintain sales in Canada since the demise of our distributor R.G. Mitchell Family Books. We will do everything we can to help the stores in that country maintain access to our titles.”

Munce Group founder and President Bob Munce said he expected “a challenge” with the holiday season.

“Consumers are still spending, but they want guilt-free shopping,” he said. “That is why we accepted the challenge early this year as we prepared our fall and winter promotions to catch the consumer’s eye with content, design and sale prices that will draw in those bargain-savvy shoppers.”

Munce added that his marketing company’s staff level is up from five years ago, with no downsizing plans.

“Our group continues to add members, and we feel that this will be a huge advantage when the economy recovers,” he said. “The Munce Group has been developing our More to Life brand through e-marketing to a large list of Christian consumers, while our Christian Product Expo trade shows are gaining momentum every year and are becoming an integral part of vendors’ sales and marketing plans. With these initiatives, we are staying busy and fully staffed.”

Ed Leonard, vice president of New Day Christian Distributions, said he expected the company’s business to be “off slightly” from last year’s fourth quarter.

“But (we) would not be surprised at a post-election upturn in sales due to a sense of national stability, especially given the dramatic drop in gas prices,” he told Christian Retailing.

Joanna Price, director of marketing and promotions, added: “We know that our customers are struggling to make ends meet, so we have implemented a new weekly promotion offering extra discounts on the items that are in highest demand. Recent specials have included Fisher-Price Little People Playsets, Josh Groban’s Christmas CD and The Love Dare.”

Michael Covington, technology and information officer for the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, said overall attendance was down 19% for the organization’s PUBu—held last month in Chicago.  

The decline “has something to do with the downturn in the economy as some attendees have mentioned that as a factor in decreasing their companies’ attendance,” he said.  

Some retailers have adjusted their operations to cope with the economy. Located in a farming town of 20,000, Changed Heart Creations in Lucedale, Miss., closed on Wednesdays in October and asked for prayer from customers to weather the economic crisis. The store resumed Wednesday hours in November, but closed two hours earlier.

Karlene McHatton, who along with her co-owner husband, Bob, works at a hospital and lives 50 miles from the store, said that the midweek closure cut down on their gas bill and travel time as well as the expense of paying an employee.

The McHattons also delayed ordering products to take advantage of supplier terms. Traditionally made in August, the store’s Christmas orders were put off until the end of October. 

“It’s all about juggling money,” McHatton said. “We hope one day that the income from the store will pay our salaries.”

Meanwhile, Paul and Pauline Holsopple, owners of the Anchor Room in Fort Wayne, Ind., have leased one-fourth of their 20,000-square-foot store to a local church to help offset their monthly expenses.

“Instead of a bookstore in a church, we have a church in a bookstore,” said Pauline Holsopple.

The church, which began holding Sunday services Sept. 1, placed a permanent wall to separate it from the store.

“It’s good for us because of the income that it generates,” Holsopple said. “Hopefully, people that attend the church will come back at later times and patronize us.“