Digital initiative launches with 400-plus Christian stores Print
Written by Eric Tiansay   
Monday, 10 November 2008 03:56 PM America/New_York

Zondervan’s Symtio offers retailers ‘extremely high-return rate with very low investment’

More than 400 Christian stores have signed up for Zondervan’s new Symtio initiative, touted as “a multi-channel solution for digital media,” which launched last month.

Unveiled at the International Christian Retail Show in July, Symtio features credit-card-sized book tokens that can be purchased in Christian retail stores, which allow consumers to download audio versions of the titles at home.

Symtio was launched Oct. 17 with about 150 audio titles and nearly 50 e-books from Zondervan and Baker Publishing Group, with discussions taking place about adding other publishers’ works, Zondervan said.

“These numbers will grow quickly as additional publishers come on board,” said Tim Close, senior vice president of Symtio, a separate division of Zondervan.

A technology veteran, Close leads a seven-person, Chicago-based staff hired to work on Symtio. In addition, two employees for Zondervan—with headquarters in Grand Rapids, Mich.—were scheduled to transition to work on the digital program.

“Symtio has evolved into a true digital media platform for retail,” Close told Christian Retailing. “Symtio will support all digital media files like music, movies and audiobooks in addition to e-books. With the continuing press for (return on investment) at retail, Symtio offers retailers an extremely high-return rate with a very low investment in the digital space.

“With the addition of all digital media formats, it gives retailers a chance to get ahead of the digital curve and meet market demands,” he added. “Symtio will offer its retail partners a turnkey, multi-channel solution for digital media.”

Close noted that when a retailer signs up for the program, the store receives two merchandising kits that cost about $700, with a total space footprint of 8 feet.

“Zondervan cuts the cost in half, so the store only pays for one of (the kits),  and then the initial packet of cards—six of each title, about 800 or so cards—costs approximately $80,” he explained. “So a store can get on board with this program for an initial investment of under $800.”

Myron Detweiler, vice president of merchandising for Berean Christian Stores, told Christian Retailing that all of the chain’s 25 stores would carry Symtio.

“It is ahead of the trend, which is great for the CBA market,” he said. “We are thrilled with the partnership and the opportunity. The only major potential drawback is price point. How it will compete with the price of other online download options such as the Amazon Kindle?”

Close said Symtio products “will be competitively priced” with the Amazon Kindle. Bruce Anderson—owner of Alpha & Omega Parable Christian Stores—said he was cautiously optimistic about using Symtio for his three Rochester, N.Y., locations, which each has about 4,800 square feet of retail space. He told Christian Retailing that electronic distribution of audiobooks and e-books will be the future—similar to the digital distribution of music.

“As an independent bookstore, we need to be a part of that distribution methodology,” he said. “Symtio may be the vehicle; it is too early to tell. … Since one will need to download the audiobook or e-book after purchasing (Symtio) from us, nothing will stop the customer from making that purchase directly on the computer in the future.

“Symtio is one solution; it seems to be positioned for Christian retailing,” he added. “If it remains in our niche market, then it should help us. If it is everywhere, then it will not help us.”

Close said the evangelical retail channel will be Symtio’s “cornerstone” for Christian content.

“When we roll out to the ABA (American Booksellers Association) and mass markets, it will be with a much larger assortment of secular and inspirational titles, movies and music from a wide variety of content providers,” he explained. “In short, it won’t be complete parallel distribution of the same titles across the CBA and mass markets. … We are actively signing up publishers and hope to have the deepest catalog of digital media in the market.”

David Lewis, director of sales and marketing for Baker Publishing Group, told Christian Retailing that the Grand Rapids, Mich., publisher began with six audiobooks for Symtio, but it will add more than 100 e-books soon.