Make use of these 8 tips to improve your store—and its community reach
Virtually every retailer today is seeing changes to how business is done. Shifts in marketing and promotion, methods of delivering product, customer shopping preferences, and the length of time products are considered new are all changing the retail landscape. As Christian store owners and managers across the U.S. work to stay ahead, they have found some successes along the way, offering ideas that their fellow retailers may wish to try.
1. Be Willing to Try a Variety of Events.
When Jim Pitman, manager at the CLC Bookcenters location in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, realized that Thursday and Friday nights in the summer were slow times for his store, he started brainstorming. The result was a Karaoke Kids night, which he held Thursdays, 6-7:30 p.m. With a few soundtracks and a sound system the store already had plus a couple of microphones, the event was equipped.
“We thought that parents would like to give their kids a chance to perform, and we really wanted to create a fun family atmosphere, plus we thought that parents might likely invite family and friends in the area when their child was planning to perform,” Pitman said.
The store got the word out with a postcard mailing, an email blast and Facebook posts keeping the momentum going by posting photos or videos of kids who had performed and whose parents gave permission for their children’s images to be used.
Each child who performed received a gift certificate for $5 off a $10-or-more purchase. Most of the gift cards were redeemed, many used the evening they were earned, providing an immediate return on the store’s promotional effort.
Originally, Pitman said, the plan was to limit the event to kids 12 and under, but they realized early on that they didn’t have many kids in that age range coming so they opted to allow everyone in the family to participate. While the event didn’t break any records, Pitman thinks it’s worth possibly trying again with some modifications next summer.
“You have to be willing to do a lot of different things,” the manager said. “We do some things to appeal to teens, some for parents and families, and some that appeal to older customers.”
Another thing Pitman said boosted store traffic this summer was using 10-foot directional flags in the shopping center in which the store is located to draw attention to their store’s offerings that have broad appeal. In part, the flags helped to draw attention to the store beyond the daytime when that side of the shopping center is busiest in an effort to build evening foot traffic.
2. Embrace That Project You’ve Been Putting off.
As with any project requiring renovation, this summer’s remodel of Wheaton Religious Gift & Church Supply in Wheaton, Illinois, started small, and the snowball just kept getting bigger.
“After almost 20 years, we knew that the carpet was basically shot,” said Joe Taschetta, store owner. “Then we started thinking that while we had the carpet out, we might as well do the fixtures and then came the lighting, some fresh paint and finally we decided to remodel the office and call-center area.”
One of the biggest changes was the removal of a staircase in the center of the store leading up to the office and call center. Since there were several other ways to access those areas, eliminating the staircase allowed much-needed space for displays. Also added were merchandising fixtures with greater flexibility that allowed for more seasonal cross-merchandising between departments. Now, Taschetta says the space is “less like an obstacle course.”
Another important consideration for the store, which is housed in a building dating from the 1900s, was finding a solution that worked with the uneven floor of the building and was much more maintenance friendly. Faux-wood flooring fit the bill, handling the high-traffic area and adapting to the building’s quirks.
Choosing August, the store’s lowest volume month, for the remodel also made sense. And the customer response? “All positive,” Taschetta said.
People tell the staff that the store smells nice, looks bigger and best of all, they comment about products the store has always carried, exclaiming, “I didn’t know you had that!” Taschetta also says he’s noticed an influx of new, younger customers browsing the updated space.
3. Build on Your Unique Shopping Experience.
Updating even small areas in the store tends to draw customers and often leads to sales of products that were not moving.
“We realized that retail is changing all around us, so we wanted to make sure we were keeping our look fresh,” said Heather Stofer, marketing manager for The Bookery Parable Christian Store in Mansfield, Ohio. For the store, that meant an updated image with new flooring and fixtures and an infusion of new gift items, including scarves and jewelry, as well as other gifts of interest to a broader audience.
But the choice of more product was more than just a cosmetic improvement.
“Even though we didn’t decrease books and Bibles, we also know that gifts are a category that people don’t buy online as readily,” Stofer said. “Even though the impact of downloading on book [and music sales] has leveled out for the most part, we know that music alone won’t draw people into the store. They may end up downloading what they want if they aren’t in the store for another reason.”
A changing gift selection also helps keep the store visually fresh and draws in those who aren’t sure what they want but know it when they see it, Stofer said.
Another way the team is keeping the store of interest to customers is through its events schedule. Throughout the year, the store hosts a variety of events like their pastor-appreciation luncheon and a Christmas open house, as well as events with locally and nationally known authors.
One new addition to the roster this year was a concert series with local artists, made possible because one of the store’s employees had a number of such contacts. The series was held the second Friday of the month year round, taking place in the store’s conference room in cooler or inclement weather and outside on the lawn during the summer.
Promoting the concert series through email and Facebook reminders drew in some new faces who Stofer says “may never have been in our store before” and netted a consistent audience of at least 50 people each month.
4. Brainstorm Your Way to Winning Ideas.
At Arrowhead Parable Christian Store in Johnson City, New York, brainstorming has paid off.
“I meet several times a month with all the department heads, and we just started brainstorming things that would be fun to do and would draw people in,” said Paul Kuntz, store manager. “Some of the women there saw the movie Moms Night Out and liked it, so the idea of creating our own ‘Girls Night Out’ was born.”
The team at the store got busy contacting the movie’s distributor and other companies that could partner with them on the event, providing items for a goody bag for everyone in attendance, offering prizes and making plans for a chocolate fountain, homemade desserts and other perks. Knowing that they had space in the conference room where they planned to project the movie for 100 people, the team got busy promoting the event.
“We sent out an email on Friday, and all the slots were reserved by Monday,” Kuntz said. “We still had a lot of people calling and wanting to come, so the staff convinced me to do a second evening for the event, and we sent out word on Saturday. This time, it was full by Tuesday.”
While he was happy with a packed house each night, Kuntz is considering some strategic changes to such an event for the future. With roughly 20% of the reserved spots being no-shows each night, he wonders if charging a minimal amount returned as store credit toward a purchase the night of the event might be a better way of encouraging attendance by those who made a reservation.
“It’s sad because we had turned down people wanting to make reservations,” Kuntz said.
5. Employ Flexible Merchandising.
In 20 years, the Kregel Parable Christian Stores location in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has grown and evolved, but not all of that shifting was positive. As a result of years of small changes, the store lacked a cohesive feel and was in need of a makeover to bring its overall look up to date.
“I had jewelry in three different places,” said Kathie Kregel, the store’s co-owner. “Being able to organize the gift product and make the area more fluid were our primary objectives.”
The store’s carpeting had become stained through the years, so it limited the ways the floor could be configured. Replacing one large gift fixture with several smaller ones also made the gift area easier for multiple customers to browse at once. Introducing fresh paint, new carpet and more flexible fixtures in a few key places, the new look was complete in just five days.
6. Reimagine What Doesn’t Work.
All it took to persuade owner Rick Adams to give Rainbow West in Albany, Oregon, a second chance in a new location was its history of more than 30 years in the community, an energetic store manager and a workable one-year lease—well, those factors and Adams jokingly admits he “got a little stupid.”
When his father had a stroke a year-and-a-half ago, the responsibility for the bookstores his father owned shifted onto Adams’ shoulders. He knew that the Albany store needed new life and wasn’t entirely sure what to do at first. There was a buildup of old, irrelevant stock; the store layout no longer had good flow for the customers; and something needed to change with regard to the store’s location. Content with the success of his other stores, Adams considered closing the Albany store at first. But Manager Connie Ayers brought her experience and enthusiasm to the table, which convinced him to formulate a plan for moving the store.
He culled fixtures from his other locations, sold outdated stock at a loss to clear space, expanded the Bible section and brought in more bargain books. He also reset music and DVDs on a wall face-out and strategically added to his gift and kids’ areas to capitalize on walk-through traffic in the store’s new mall location.
“I think we often underestimate how open the general population is to an inspirational message,” Adams said.
With a new lease on life, the store seemed to find its focus.
“One of the biggest changes that has kept us successful in recent years is developing better focus,” Adams said. “I used to think that the average shelf life of products like books or music was two years. Now I’d say it’s one year at the most because prices are changing as they are released. If it’s not moving, it’s losing.”
Keeping track of inventory is still a relatively low-tech task for Adams and his team though. Using peel-off inventory tags, they track what has sold and needs to be reordered in books and music, both of which are driven heavily by new releases. Adams looks at the tags each evening and places reorders as appropriate. He also doesn’t underestimate the power of simple observation. Doing so helps him make connections on what products might sell well at his other stores, which products have simply been around too long and which items are moving briskly.
So far, the store has been doing well in its new location, showing doubled sales the first month, but Adams admits its success remains to be seen. The mall the store is in has drawn Oregon’s first Hobby Lobby and is seeing its own resurgence with increased foot traffic. He’s hoping that rising tides continue to lift all ships.
7. Understand Your Customer Distinctives.
When Scott Gabrielson, owner of Church Mart in Rocky Mount, Virginia, made the decision to open a new store by the name of Lighthouse Gifts and Books in Hardy, Virginia, he felt that there was a need in that area.
“There’s no bookstore in the entire county, and since it’s a resort area, the clientele was very different,” Gabrielson said.
While brainstorming about how to reach shoppers in the new location, Gabrielson’s daughter came up with the name Lighthouse. It was a nod to nearby Smith Mountain Lake’s 500 miles of shoreline, and it made sense in a Christian context, but without being a turnoff to those who are not regular church goers.
Gabrielson also has been intentional about carrying not just Christian books and gifts, but many titles from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller lists as well as popular gift lines to appeal to local customers.
“I think that it’s easy for us to get stuck on [carrying] items that have nothing to do with [a faith message],” he said. Yet in a town where there are few other sources for such items, choosing to do so represents a unique opportunity to draw people in for more than just one item.”
The store also uses special stickers that list the store name, Amazon’s price and “our price” on books. Lighthouse aims to meet or beat Amazon’s price, particularly on hardcover titles. While its pricing may not always have the store making money, Gabrielson says it does leave a critical first impression with customers that his store is competitive.
8. Tune in and Listen for the Lord’s Direction.
Even though Kitty Jones recently closed the doors of Spirit & Life in Cortland, New York, she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that the store was successful in reaching people in her community. Despite having cerebral palsy, Jones came off of disability benefits and lived in faith starting just a few years after founding the store, which she operated for 32 years. She started it around the time that one of the factories moved out of the area, and the community saw an economic downturn.
At the time, Jones said she “had no experience and couldn’t have done it on my own. [Our store’s success] was only [because of] God.”
Jones said she initially resisted suggestions that she should get into retail because her cerebral palsy made it difficult to put product in a bag, and she didn’t want people to see her struggle. But when she felt God told her He was going to move in a mighty way and then provided the finances to purchase and later operate the store, she decided to take Him at His word.
Time after time, Jones said, God guided her through the challenges of learning how to run the store by sending people she could trust to help, and He spoke to her about the needs she and the store had. One day, Jones said she was faced with a stack of bills to be paid and no idea how that would happen. After her prayer time, she went to the store and remembers how people “came out of the woodwork” shopping that day. She was able to write all the checks that were needed.
Jones frequently felt she walked a tightrope between business and ministry, as many Christian retailers do, but she received good advice early on that she used as a guide for the life of the store.
“I had a gentleman sit me down and say, ‘You’re a business. Don’t give everything away,’ ” she recalled. “After that, I decided that if I couldn’t do something for everyone, I wouldn’t do it for anyone.”
Through the years, Jones always looked for ways that the store could invest in the community, from hosting Redemption game nights, a positive activity for kids, and holding other family activities. Now that the store has closed and Jones is adopting a less hectic pace of life, she’s more aware than ever that the community really was the heart of her store.
Jones said she doesn’t miss the stress, but she does “miss the people.”