Christian Retailing

Understanding today’s church store environment Print Email
Written by Robbie Halstead   
Wednesday, 04 February 2015 02:45 PM America/New_York

Congregation-based stores must find their focus to maximize sales

As I reflect on my entry into the world of Christian retailing over 20 years ago, I’ve pondered the transitions that have made our industry what it is today. Let’s dig a little deeper into these changes as I offer some suggestions that church bookstore managers can put into place now to maximize success.

RobbieHalsteadMy first experience in Christian retail was taking over a ministry-owned bookstore in downtown Boston. I walked into a store where the passion and love for Christ and His people were overflowing. Their desire to serve their community was without question. What was in question was how their vision would come to be.

Those leading the ministry asked: “How do we take a store that evolved into something on its own and do better? What are we missing? Have we gone as far as we can with it?” Those working at the store recognized that some change would be OK, but they had no idea the degree of change needed for the store to remain viable.

When I started working with the store, it was in need of inventory, as well as merchandising and marketing plans. It was also functioning on an obsolete point-of-sale system. I helped them make the necessary adjustments, and as a result, we tripled the sales of that store within three years!

In 2014, I traveled across the country working with stores, most of them on church campuses, and have discovered that there is a transition happening in the church store market. The same questions that leadership asked at the Boston store some 20 years ago are now being asked of today’s church store managers.

Since entering the consulting world full time over six years ago, my visits to these stores has shown that as long as they weren’t losing money, church leadership left them alone to run their operations. That attitude has always bothered me. It would be similar to me saying to my pastor, “Well, as long as you aren’t putting me to sleep during your message, I’m good.” How could I grow and develop as a believer if that were my approach to church? I couldn’t grow, and neither can church stores build their ministries with that attitude in place. And as a manager, how can I develop my skills and the business with that mentality?

Prior to last year, the only challenge being handed down from the church leadership was to make sure that inventory gets done once or twice a year, and numbers are as accurate as possible. Occasionally questions are raised about spending, but for the most part, church stores were left alone.

However, in order for church stores to succeed, there must be a plan in place. Church stores—and for that matter, any Christian retail store—must put in place some sound business practices. In the last 10 years, many independent bookstores have closed, and now we are beginning to see the same thing with church stores closing, some of them fairly large ones. While I cannot comment on why any of them closed, I can comment on the stores I have seen move from the brink of closure to surviving to even thriving because of three fundamental changes they made.

1. Write a store budget. Although a congregation may write a budget for all of its ministries, the church store manager must write his or her own budget for the store and work to adhere to it throughout the year. Keep it simple. Just make a sales budget for each month, an inventory-purchasing budget based on those sales and a listing of operational expenses that you are accountable for in the store. Depending on the size of your store, you could very well just do it quarterly. Unless your church store is brand new, you should have previous years’ data to help you prepare a new budget.

2. Create a purchasing budget. Some may refer to this as open-to-buy. Again, this number would be based on your targeted sales budget per month/quarter. But it’s important to go deeper here to ensure that we put the dollars where the sales actually are. Rather than just having a dollar amount for the month for all departments, we need to look at each department to see the sales. For example, if our sales goal for the month is $10,000, and 20% of our sales are books, then 20% of our purchasing needs to be for books. Use this approach for all of your store’s departments.

3. Establish a merchandising plan. Look at your church calendar of events and plan how you merchandise your store accordingly. Your church store should be an extension of the life of your church! This can be difficult because the communication may not flow as smoothly as you need it to within the church, but it’s something to work toward continually. As events take place in the church, you will need to have the product on hand for potential customers who are attending these events.

I am excited about the future of Christian retailing in general, but am particularly tuned in to the church store market as I see more congregationally based stores recognize the ministry they are to their community while also learning to operate their store as an effective business.

Implementing these three practices will go a long way not just in seeing your ministry bookstore survive, but also thrive!

Robbie Halstead is founder of Kingdom Retail Solutions, a consulting company that assists Christian retailers in all facets of their store operations with a special emphasis on training stores that have Bookstore Manager software.