Christian Retailing

CompeTuition May 2011: retail lessons from other businesses Print Email
Written by Kirk Blank   
Tuesday, 10 May 2011 11:23 AM America/New_York

Avis2Avis: Keeping on top of  customer service complaints

A recent experience with a company with which I often do business reminded me that it is not only others' excellence that offers lessons in how to improve what we do. My encounter with the Avis car-rental company served as an object lesson in how to lose friends and influence people to go elsewhere.

It started when I approached the Avis counter at the airport in Grand Rapids, Mich., about my reservation, relevant papers in hand. Before I could present them, the agent—with a rather large wad of gum in her mouth—told me: "We ain't got no cars so you're gonna have to sit down, and I will call you when we get a car."

When I was finally called to the counter, more than a hour later, I was informed that the mid-size I had reserved was unavailable, but I could have a compact—or just wait, with no guarantees.

Having taken the smaller car, I pointed out to the agent that she had made no adjustment on the invoice. Her answer: She had no authority to make a change and I would have to write and get a credit or convince the agent when I returned the car to the agency. To cap it all off, the vehicle I did eventually receive was dirty, outside and in.

Feeling compelled to contact Avis' customer-service line, I left a voice mail and was assured I would receive a response within 36 hours. Despite leaving two further messages in the following three weeks, no one ever called me back.

Frustrated, I sent a letter to the CEO. An assistant called me three days later to apologize and correct the problem. And I received an e-mail expressing concern for my "horrible experience," an assurance that corrective measures had been taken and a $45 voucher for use on a future rental.

So what application do I see for Christian retailers?

By the time you get a complaint, the problem most likely has been festering for a while. Act quickly to learn more about the problem. It was obvious from the time between my original contact with Avis and the final resolution that the company did not have a system in place to respond swiftly.

Take an active role in observing how your staff treats customers—on the phone, by e-mail and or in person. If a supervisor had been present at the airport in Grand Rapids that day, things would have been quite different.

Take the time to actively ask your customers how you and your staff are serving them. Also consider asking some customers who have not visited your store in a while why they haven't been in. There are many low-cost ways of doing this, through e-mails, Facebook postings, online surveys and postcard mailings.

Since we are a society that uses Google instead of a phone book these days, take some time to search your bookstore online with pejorative terms like "stinks" (and worse) to learn if there's a groundswell of discontent about your store. Customers who are frustrated will often resort to the Internet to warn others about bad businesses. In fact, there are Web sites dedicated to identifying companies with poor customer service.

Customer service is too important to ignore. While it may be somewhat uncomfortable to let someone go, holding onto an employee with little regard for customer service will eventually kill your business' reputation. From a preventative standpoint, make sure your corporate values on customer care are clear, and incorporate them into the hiring process to ensure that those you bring on to take care of your customers are staff members who truly value serving others. 

This last point is the perhaps most important one. When someone prizes being of service to others, they don't need extensive training on how to help another person—it's instinctive. And great customer service helps build great companies.

One of my favorite verses is 1 John 4:19: "We love because He first loved us." We are called to be God's representatives—to reflect the love that we've been shown.

Customer service is the connective tissue between your business and your customers. Make sure that you're not the last to know that poor representatives are the cause of a customer exodus. 


Kirk Blank is president of Munce Group and a member of the Christian Retailing editorial advisory board.


Read an extended version of this article online at

VITAL SIGNS: Taking stock of stocking Print Email
Written by Jim Seybert   
Friday, 06 May 2011 03:47 PM America/New_York

Changes in the market are impacting how stores handle their inventory

Most Christian retail stores carry less inventory today than they did two years ago, and some of them are looking at what is on their shelves with more scrutiny than ever before, in light of the changing market. Online-implications-graphOnline purchasing is one of the factors affecting what has long been championed as one of Christian retailers' greatest strengths, backlist, we learned in our latest Vital Signs industry survey. Here is what we found:



Two out of five (40%) retailers said that they have maintained the same mix in the past two years of direct orders versus orders through distributors. The balance swings in favor of direct orders among for-profit stores and toward distributor orders at church and school stores.

On average, for-profit stores ordered about 54% of inventory direct from manufacturers and publishers, while church/school stores got 57% of their product from distributors. The trend is moving toward distributors, with 19% of all stores saying they were ordering "significantly more" product from distributors.



For-profit stores stock an average of 13,836 different SKUs, while church stores average 9,827. The highest SKU count in our survey came in at 120,000, and the median was 7,350.

Nearly three in five retailers told us that they have reduced the total value of their inventory since January 2009, but while many have cut orders, the average reduction in total inventory figures was just 3.21%. Slightly more than 12% of stores reported no change in their total inventory value since January 2009, and 8% had increased the amount of stock they carry.

A handful of stores reported having completely eliminated some once-standard categories, such as music, apparel and jewelry. And in some stores, new categories are sprouting. A few said they have pumped up their gift selection, and 3% had developed what one retailer referred to as a "Social Issues" section with books on business ethics and poverty, and cause-related gifts.



The most common frequency for stores culling products that had not sold and returning  them for credit was once per quarter, with 34% doing this four times a year. However, 14% said that they never process returns. 

The average time a title is allowed to stay on the shelf without being marked for return is between six and nine months. Two out of five (42%) said they would  keep a book six to nine months before pulling it, but 36% of stores did not have any pre-established period of time before pulling a book for return. 

One retailer suggested Leonard Shatzkin's The Mathematics of Bookselling as a source for learning more about formulas for managing returns.



We were told of many different strategies for managing inventory—Just In Time, Open to Buy, Core Inventory and others—and stores seemed to use a hybrid that fit their particular needs, expertise or moment in time. Dozens of stores shared their strategies, and these are available online at



The purpose of Vital Signs is to generate dialogue about important issues in the Christian products industry. As you interact with other retailers, here are some questions you can use to start conversations about inventory:

  •  Have you eliminated, or added, any categories lately?
  •  Do you have a set formula for deciding which titles to return?
  • How much extra discount would it take for you buy non-returnable titles on an initial order?


Suppliers and demand

Returning unsold merchandise for credit is somewhat peculiar to the book world, with publishers often pointing to the practice as a cost of doing business not found in other channels.  In our survey, the majority (58%) of retailers said they would be unfavorable to any plan that eliminated returns, even one that did so with the promise of steeper discounts. Most suppliers were not willing to speak on the record about changing or ending the process, but some shared their frank opinions confidentially:

MARKETING: "Returns benefit publishers by serving as a marketing vehicle. With the promise of returnable merchandise, retailers can lay in greater quantities of product, making the actual product function as visual merchandising."

COUNTERPRODUCTIVE: "Returns cultivate a model of behavior that is counterproductive to what everyone in the supply chain wants to do, which is reduce inefficiency."

SLOPPY BUYING: "Returns provide a safety net for retailers, but it also promotes sloppy buying and inventory misalignment. Publishers with the most generous terms can use the promise of returns to gain a disproportionate share of retail display space for product that may not be worthy of the attention."

REDUCED COSTS: "Doing away with returns would reduce publisher costs, but would probably not result in a commensurate price reduction to retailers."

INEFFICIENT: "Keep in mind that an entire industry has grown up around this inefficient supply chain. The remainders business benefits publishers and consumers."


 Jim Seybert is an author and consultant living in Arroyo Grande, Calif. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

CompeTuition April 2011: retail lessons from other businesses Print Email
Written by David Amster   
Thursday, 05 May 2011 04:01 PM America/New_York

Trader-Joes-Answer-Person1Trader Joe's: finding style in the grocery aisle


The mere mention of the name Trader Joe's lights up the eyes of many a consumer that has shopped one of the funky stores found in nine states. The specialty chain has captured a unique position in the grocery channel with emphasis on three essentials: great product selection, creative communication and engaging staff.

But just copying someone rarely works for three reasons. First, they are the originators, and if they're good, they've figured it out. Chances are you're not going to top them; you'll only be a ‘knock-off' or a mediocre copy that can be easily spotted. Second, they have the advantage of having made the mistakes that come with being an originator and perfecting what they do. Third, and most important, the "why" of their distinctives is as important as the "what," but is a question that is rarely asked.

However, looking at Trader Joe's can offer insights into how they are employing the principles of great retailing that
connects with consumers, turning them into shoppers and then into customers.

The first glimpse comes at the company Web site——which traces the business' history from the 1950s. "We ... decked the walls with cedar planks and donned our crew in cool Hawaiian shirts. ... we started putting innovative, hard-to-find, great-tasting foods in the Trader Joe's name. That cut our costs and saved you money. Still does. And that's important, because ‘Value' is a concept we take very seriously."

That positions the business as whimsical and may draw you in to check it out, but if the stores didn't have the foods people wanted to buy, it would fall flat.

But in-store, you find distinct product selection. Trader Joe's stocks lots of foods and brands the typical grocer doesn't focus on. While the selection is broad, it is perhaps only a quarter of a full-line national grocery chain store. There are pizzas and frozen entrees, but not the national brands. In fact, forget about trying to find a national brand in the store. Many are its own brands with twists on typical items such as potato chips to offer the uniqueness that people want.

How does that translate, considering that, without question, you're going to carry many of the same book titles as all Christian retailers? Well, does your competition ignore the charismatic market? Do you have a growing Hispanic market that the competition is under-serving?

When you visit the gift marts, start looking for products that are different from what is available in every other store. Consumers want to "discover" unique merchandise. It is your job to make that happen.

Great, eye-catching communication is the specialty retailer's next strength. There is not a single "printed" sign. They all look handwritten in a whimsical style. The main signs are on chalkboards. The copy is usually delightful to read and always tells you what you need to know about the product.

Sadly, in my years visiting Christian retail stores, I cannot begin to tell how many times I see signs printed on white paper with black lettering or signs printed on neon paper that clash with everything in the store. Then there are poorly handwritten signs. Consumers have so many choices today for purchasing merchandise—poor signage is just one more roadblock to shopping in a store.

But, communication is more than just signage; it is the display of the merchandise itself. Retailers must become visual merchandisers if they are going to be successful at creating eye-catching displays.

Finally, Trader Joe's excels with knowledgeable and friendly staff. The chain is famous for its Answer Person roaming the aisles with a tall question-mark sign. He or she gives answers quick and not just on, "Where do I find this?" It's about relationships, and staff always convey genuine friendliness and a desire to help.

Case in point: When the checkout is really busy and a line opens up, the checker will come over to you to tell you instead of announcing it loudly. This eliminates a rush of people. 

Very few Christian retail frontliners are "walking computer databases" with answers at the tips of their tongues, but they can have the resources handy to find answers. Learn how to get answers to shoppers' inquiries online, and always communicate that you are eager to help. 


David Amster is chief innovation officer for Integra Interactive and a former member of Christian Retailing's industry advisory board.

CompeTuition: retail Lessons From Other Businesses Print Email
Written by Mary Manz Simon   
Wednesday, 23 March 2011 04:11 PM America/New_York

Books-A-Million:  Letting the covers do the selling

Books a millionLike 78% of online American shoppers, my store visit began at the Books-A-Million (BAM) Web site, and as a tech klutz, I was delighted that the entire site was easy to navigate. A direct link from the home page led to a section called “Faithpoint favorites,” offering a variety of titles, including books by Francine Rivers, Drew Brees, Max Lucado, Stephen Mansfield and Ted Dekker.

Elsewhere I found an extensive selection of Bibles, Christian Living, Christian fiction and general titles. Four inspirational gifts were featured on the “Toys and gifts” home page, while Joel Osteen’s Become a Better You was highlighted as a “bargain audio” on the audio home page. 

VITAL SIGNS: inventory Print Email
Written by Christine D. Johnson   
Tuesday, 08 February 2011 11:26 AM America/New_York

Taking stock of stocking: Changes in the market are impacting how stores handle inventory

We asked: Has your approach to product selection changed in the past two years? If so, what has changed?

“Eliminated items that we wish would sell, but simply don't.”

“Buying needs. Not buying what the vendor wants to sell.”

“Yes, buying way less.”

“ Depth—we only keep one of a title instead of six.”

“We have become very picky in our selections. Those things that do not meet spiritual requirements are not brought in, unless we can justify the draw of the product.”

“More gifts and less titles on the shelves.”

“No, we (think we) are very wide. We are a destination store.”

“Purchasing less expensive items.”

“Stocking fewer slow-turning items.”

“More gift items than before.”

“Yes, I am more aware of what customers can obtain at the big box stores.”

“Cut counter line cards by 25%, cut framed art by 90%.”

“Stocking deeper on less. Sell More Of What Sells.”

“Yes. Items must be expected to turn over in 90-120 days.”

“Less music, less books, more gifts, more church supplies.”

“We do not reorder an item if it has not sold in the last six months. We return anything that has not sold in the last six months. We only order one of each item instead of two and just reorder more often.”

“Yes, we are carrying many more ESV Bibles that previously.”

“More conservative buying; being asked to special order art work; will discontinue apparel and jewelry for a time.”

“Not really, broader selection with less depth.”

“I don't purchase everything new that comes out. I do more special order requests instead of having the merchandise sit on the shelf.”

“Try to keep the price of gifts under $20 ... look for higher discount on books and Bibles so that we can sell at a discount price.”

“Less focus on gifts and apparel.”

“Buying less high priced gift items and more lower priced items.”

“Significantly more giftware/novelties.”

“Yes. Not ordering backstock now.”

“Paying more attention to what has sold in the past, bringing in less new product. Our customers come looking for what has been recommended, not the newest title available.”

“There has been a huge change in what our customers have been buying in the last two to three years. As a result I have changed my inventory buying drastically. We are a small independent book store. I buy less product and only product that I have calls for. Many items I carried that now I have no calls for I have discontinued.”

“We probably take less risk. We experiment less. Customers are shopping with purpose more than just for fun.”

“I've cut back on most of the backlist book and music inventory and we use the distributors for customer special orders to get the items quickly. I have used those book dollars to increase the gift inventory where I get better margins and faster turns. My ultimate goal would be to have new release books and music, the Top 25 in each category for backlist, and any ‘deals’ that are available to offer customers.”

“We buy a lot less music. In gifts, we don't buy junk, only quality items.”

“We take fewer risks on unknown authors/publishers and do more special orders.”

We asked: How has the process of managing inventory changed in the past couple of years? How has your attitude changed toward Core Inventories, Just-in-Time (JIT), Open to Buy (OTB), Min/Max and other strategies? 

“You have to have a mix of items but not keep a lot of old stuff around.”

“We keep a much tighter reign on inventory than ever before. This year we will only keep items on the shelf for nine months or less. I plan to order smaller quantities or new release and use JIT more. I will adjust my ordering by the % our sales were down last year. We will incorporate more digital influence into sales areas this year.”

“We try to keep breadth over depth.”

“Items not there are a lost opportunity in a 'get it online' world. Still, with less customers the mix and amount carried must change. Print on demand is okay if two weeks or less but not if longer, and there should not be a penalty in discount. Texts must be returnable even if print on demand. A 10% penalty here might be a solution to remind us to be careful. Non-returnable POD text titles is biggest trend of this year and a bad one for campus stores already struggling with Internet competition.”

“We are very aware of the length of time product has been on the shelf. We look at sales history of core inventory and see if there is a need. We know that it is easy to order and get product in quickly through distributors when necessary. Many of our min/max numbers have been brought down so we do not have as much tied up in inventory. Using digital media in our music area through Integra, we have limited some of our music area to the burn bar.”

“Open to buy is more important than ever.”

“Having to special order for customers more ... just because I can't afford to keep a large inventory.”

“Moving toward just-in-time.”

“Just In Time is lose sales because customer expects product in stock. Just In Time attitude leaves gaps in your product availability. Over time the customer will become frustrated. Core inventory is very unique to each store. To follow a publisher's idea of core inventory will not necessarily give you the critical products you need.”

“I try to keep an eye on overstocks every month and return what I can and remainder the really old stuff.”

“Managing inventory more tightly and returning more frequently.”

“Abandoned core as it appeared to only be to the benefit of publishers. Continue to focus on Min/Max and less on OTB. Biggest area of concern is new releases. Have enrolled in Spring Arbor new release music program with marginal results.”

“We were doing Just In Time before the industry gave it a name. We determine our own core inventory. The publisher's list just doesn't fit us.”

“Core lists can't be adhered to if the overall inventory is too fat. Just-In-Time buying reduces the need for large upfront inventory levels. Open-to-buy systems can be too rigid; if something extra pops up and we think the customer will respond to it; we should have the freedom to respond also.  The 'landscape' of inventory is always changing. Intuitive systems work best.”

“Carry much leaner inventory and order more frequently.”

“Because of the economy and changes to our industry we have had to put a lot more time and effort in managing our inventory. We use reports from Bookstore Manager on a daily basis to help us determine how much to get in and how often. We definitely saw that work this past Christmas as we had significantly less inventory than 2008, but had almost similar sales volume. We were just a lot smarter about what to carry and placed smaller orders more often. This is the first Christmas we were actually able to pay all of our vendors on time after Christmas.”

“I no longer worry about running out of titles and realize that with Internet availability it is foolish to 'carry enough stock' in textbooks and end up with overstock. I go to distributor sites and if the title is available, I decrease my initial quantity I order.”

“We have reduced in some areas such as counter cards, jewelry and apparel. We have maintained selections of Bibles, Christian Living and fiction. We have increased in art work and special ordered several pieces.”

“Our strategy has moved to depend on Just In Time inventory management. We stock all of our books, even new releases at low levels, maybe 1-3 copies, with the idea that we can resupply quickly through the distributors.”

“Suppliers' core inventories don’t mean its part of my core inventory. Bookstore Manager has a program that I use to watch my top sellers, making sure I'm never out of sales every day from daily printout at end of day.”

“I am less forgiving on new titles since money is so tight. I expect a new book or CD to sell within its first 90 days or else it goes back to the publisher.”

“Primarily, I don't replace things that haven't sold in the last two months—I used to do three months. I am setting Min/Max quantities lower. Trying to return autoship product more efficiently. Having a Burn Bar for media is definitely a must.”

“I'm learning most of this analysis is a waste of time, and experienced intuition is the most efficient, at least for a small bookstore. I haven't blown open-to-buy or missed key books that customers demand since using this approach. Min/max is painful and useless.”

“Inventory programs are much more efficient and reliable.”

“More emphasis on efficiency, trusting special orders and quicker turnarounds with distributors, and more time analyzing what is taking place on our sales floor from a category level all the way down to a SKU level.”

“Core Inventory is essential, but I am the best judge of 'core' for my store, not the publisher. Just-In-Time is very important, but distributors can't ship because they are having the same trouble keeping adequate inventory. I find myself scrambling from distributor to distributor looking for the products my customers expect.”

“We are mostly a special-order and good bargains/high-margin product store.”

“With faster replenishment (misnamed 'Just In Time'), lowered inventory. Using 'core inventories' is a fast way to become overstocked.

“Owning a custom inventory system has kept me from being able to take advantage of these inventory helps.”

“This answer is totally dependent upon what our sales do. I made up my mind that I do not buy anything unless I have funds to pay for it up front. I used to keep an open account and when the bottom dropped out of sight, I had several accounts that I could not handle and it has taken me two to three years to pay off those accounts. I do not want that to happen again. “

“We are a small store so usually we order one copy at a time. I try to offer a variety and to have a relatively large selection, but I no longer order every new title. I am very grateful to STL for allowing open returns as it allows me to offer more of a selection. If I could not return, I would order very little new product.”

“We don't purchase as many copies of new releases as before (we wait and see how it sells and replenish as needed). If a new release doesn't sell in first four months, we consider returning. We don't keep as wide of a selection of backlist titles as before.”

“I like 'core inventory' lists from publishers. I use them to keep bestsellers in stock. I have ordered less of titles and do more "Just In Time" as I get next day orders from Spring Arbor and Anchor.”

“We buy new lists from publishers, then replenish using min/max through distributors. Returns are essential to our bottom line. Don't have time to study each publisher core list so use the Bookstore Manager 'Eye on Inventory' list. STL has worst return policy. Publishers & Ingram are pretty good.”

“I've always maintained a tight inventory mix. The primary change in the last two years has been that I am ordering smaller frontlist quantities and am not carrying quite as much backlist. This has been achieved primarily by more aggressively culling dead wood that might have not been returned in the past.”

“Most decisions are made intuitively, having used various methods for years, but we estimate fairly well.”

Vital signs: Three key concerns Print Email
Written by Felicia Abraham   
Monday, 10 January 2011 01:25 PM America/New_York
Christian Retailing's 2010 industry surveys reflect on new opportunities in key areas, including children's materials, DVDs and e-books. Look back with us on what we learned that could benefit stores in the new year.
Vital Signs: Church sales Print Email
Written by By Jim Seybert   
Monday, 07 December 2009 03:44 PM America/New_York
Connecting with congregational consumers

VitalSigns-leadgraphThe emergence of church-based retail stores remains something of an enigma to many traditional retailers in the Christian products industry. Our latest Vital Signs survey looked at the relationship between church and non-church stores and their customer bases, and some of the opportunities that are available.

Here is what we found:



Two-thirds of non-church retailers recognized church stores as having "untapped potential," and three-fourths said that church stores "introduce new shoppers to Christian products."

At the same time, a majority (58%) of non-church retailers regarded church stores as competition for shoppers, with 54% seeing them as a "siphon" of good customers because parishioners would "rather support their local church."

More than half (57%) of traditional retailers have identified at least one church in their general trading area that hosts a retail outlet on the church campus. Of these, 30% were described by traditional retailers as being "full service" and open to the public on a regular basis, while 51% were seen as having a limited selection serving only the immediate "church community."

While most traditional retailers described selection at local church stores as being more limited than their own, two-thirds acknowledged that the church stores stocked denominational and self-published items they typically would not carry.



Despite their on-site convenience, many church retailers reported that they did not function as the "go to" order desk for curriculum and staff needs.

Less than one-fourth of church stores (23%) placed orders for Vacation Bible School material for their church, and only two in five (39%) handled their congregation's youth Sunday school material purchases.

On the other hand, nearly two-thirds of church stores said that they were a resource for their pastors' reading needs, and a whopping 85% of church stores identified themselves as the purchase point for their church's small group material.



A majority of non-church retailers admitted that they did not pursue active relations with local churches. In retail markets where there were no identified church-based stores, 65% of retailers said they seldom or never supplied local pastors with product samples, while three-fourths did not host any clergy appreciation event.

Among stores that did report reaching out and marketing themselves to local congregations, 55% sponsored regular book tables at churches, provided meeting space for church groups and sought announcements in church bulletins, worship guides and newsletters.

One retailer described a systematic approach, with a church relations team visiting local churches to promote the store. Staff also put on events, forums and training for local churches and offered a church program that promised to beat Amazon prices by 2% in return for a yearlong commitment to buy church resources through the store.

What does the future look like? A significant number of vendors, consumers and other non-retailers participating in the survey suggested that the future should involve fewer volunteer workers in church stores and closer ties between church stores and established local

Many also agreed that church stores are and will continue to be as diverse as the congregations they serve.



Vital Signs is designed to generate meaningful conversation among industry participants. Next time you have a chance, talk to your colleagues about this report, and ask for their thoughts on connecting with more people by pursuing a church-based retail opportunity.

  • Suppliers: Do you have a specific strategy for meeting the needs of people who shop in church stores?
  • Traditional Christian retailers: Where do your goals and the goals of the local church store intersect?
  • Traditional Christian retailers: If the church store in your area is strong, what do or can you offer that they don't?
  • Church stores: What are you doing to raise the professionalism of your volunteer staff?


Jim Seybert is an author and consultant living in Arroyo Grande, Calif. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Vital Signs: Category keys Print Email
Written by Jim Seybert   
Wednesday, 02 September 2009 11:10 AM America/New_York

A close look at product selection and training

An industry survey by Christian Retailing


VitalSignsgraph1Product selection and knowledge are increasingly important as Christian retail stores look to differentiate themselves from other channels offering Christian resources. Our latest Vital Signs industry survey asked how retailers were keeping on top of their departments.

Here is what we found out:



The fastest-growing product category in the last two years has been adult/family DVDs, with 70% of stores reporting that they have set aside more display space and introduced greater SKU counts in the category.

Three in five stores have increased their SKU counts for Bibles, while 51% were stocking more devotionals than they were two years ago. On the other side of the scale, 40% told us that they have diminished inventory for rock/alternative music and for framed art. Apparel inventory was down in 31% of stores and up in 24%.

Stores were evenly split on their approach to changes in criteria for introducing products they "might not have carried" in years past.

Just over half (52%) reported that their selection criteria was narrower than it used to be, and 48% said they were stocking a broader range of products.

One owner commented on a shift in her mission, saying the store was "becoming more and more like real life—a Christian living center."

Meanwhile, 52% of Christian store shoppers who took part in our poll said that they were interested in a broader selection of products than they had been been two years ago, while 10% were looking more narrowly, and 38% had not changed their criteria.



New retail technologies are a long way from being commonplace in Christian stores. Just one in three stores reported having a system where shoppers can select songs and have them burned to a CD in the store.

Cost and lack of awareness were the main reasons given for not offering such a service, though one store admitted to the questionable practice of "buying the song from iTunes and burning a CD for customers."

One in six stores currently offers Zondervan's Symtio system for electronic book purchases, introduced at the International Christian Retail Show in 2008. Another 13% said they planned to introduce it in their stores. The majority of those with no Symtio plans cited a lack of product knowledge for their hesitation.



Employees gather for product training on a monthly or quarterly schedule at 40% of Christian stores. A few stores meet more often for training (12%) and 22% less frequently. Employees are "encouraged" to learn more about products in 52% of stores and are "required" to do so in 24%.

Among stores where staff are encouraged or required to participate in training, half offered no incentives for doing so (53%). As one owner put it, "They get paid their hourly wage and have a job." Of those who do incentivize training efforts, the most common reward is "free product" (22%) and "recognition" (19%).

Stores rated product training provided by Zondervan as the best (73%), followed by Tyndale (24%) and Thomas Nelson (11%)—with the totals adding to more than 100% due to multiple choices allowed.

The top four reasons given for not doing as much training were: the need for better or more convenient systems (24%), lack of time (22%), lack of vendor involvement (18%) and prohibitive cost (8%).


VitalSignsgraph2HOLIDAY HOPES

Slightly more than half of Christian stores (51%) expected their sales this Christmas season to be better than last year, and 5% were looking for a "significant increase" as the year ends. Another 29% predicted a flat growth curve as 2009 closes out, with the balance citing worsening local economies as they braced for decreased sales in the fourth quarter.

Those anticipating increases pointed to reasons ranging from "steadily growing sales all year" to the introduction of frequent buyer programs that will make their targeted marketing more effective.



The purpose of Vital Signs is to help generate useful dialogue among industry members. Here are some questions to ask one another:

What's your approach to giving staff an incentive for product training?

Is it right to burn songs from iTunes to a CD and sell them to customers?

What are you doing this Christmas to boost your chances for better sales?


Jim Seybert is an author and consultant living in Arroyo Grande, Calif. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Vital Signs: Pros and Consolidation Print Email
Written by By Jim Seybert   
Friday, 19 June 2009 03:15 PM America/New_York

Weighing the benefits and drawbacks of greater cooperation


A Christian Retailing industry survey

There is a trend across all industries to maximize efficiency by combining efforts, while at the same time slicing markets and product lines into smaller and more specifically targeted segments. The Christian products industry is no exception.

Our latest Vital Signs survey explored the effects of consolidation and fragmentation in the Christian products industry.

Here is what we found:



There are pros and cons to consolidating.

Retailers and suppliers told us that they would anticipate “more pro than con” in several areas—if more independents were to join forces; if data collection and reporting were consolidated; and if best-seller lists were combined.

A significant number of retailers (47%) are buying from fewer individual vendors than they were five years ago.

An interesting side note to this question was that 15% of those responding to the survey were not in business five years ago.

One area of fragmentation that pleased retailers was gifts, summed up by the comment of one who said: “When it comes to gift selection, the more the merrier.”

On the downside, three-fourths of retailers and suppliers (78%) predicted “more con than pro,” should Christian retail chains buy more independent stores.



While trade show attendance has fallen in all industries, retailers and suppliers who attend Christian trade shows agreed on the top three reasons for the decline as: the availability of product information online (60%), no urgency to attend (57%) and a greater use of online product ordering (54%).

Christian retailers and their suppliers also agreed—by a wide margin—that a consolidated trade show sponsored by the industry’s three trade associations—CBA, the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association and the Gospel Music Association—would be “likely to succeed.”

Nearly nine in 10 retailers (88%) and just over three-quarters of suppliers (77%) agreed that a combined trade show would “save on travel expenses” and would be “easier to schedule” than the current model of each association holding separate events.

Not all felt that combining the exhibitions would be a good idea, though. Many who did not think it a good idea mentioned the possibility of “information overload,” and a few pointed to potential leadership conflicts, including “deciding which organization would take the lead” on a combined event.

There was much less support for the idea of combining all three associations into a single entity. More than half of retailers (53%) and almost two-thirds of suppliers (63%) rejected that notion.



So what approach should Christians in business take with regard to consolidating or fragmenting? Judging by our respondents, balance is necessary.

One retailer, in support of fragmenting, wrote: “When it comes to serving God by giving customers a variety of product, one size does not fit all.”

And in a call for greater consolidation, another observed: “We lost out (in Canada) by not getting together to share ideas and encourage (each other).”

As you consider the results of this survey, take some time to discuss the following with a couple of colleagues in the industry:

Are there ways I could consolidate some of my operations?

What are some obstacles to helpful industry-wide consolidation?

What biblical principles should govern my thinking in this area?


Jim Seybert is an author and consultant living in Arroyo Grande, Calif. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Vital Signs June: Retail reformation Print Email
Written by Felicia Abraham   
Wednesday, 20 May 2009 05:33 PM America/New_York
Retail reformation: How the economy is impacting consumer habits and business practices

Question: Compared to Dec. 31, 2008, are you more or less hopeful about the future of your business than you were at that time? Why?


Retailers: More hopeful

"Changed location and heavily advertised."

"Sales consistency."

"Making sure that we have lots of books, Bibles and DVDs sale-priced. Daily sales have given me a positive outlook for the future of my business."

"Just prayer. I feel encouraged from God, not from the economy."

"People are looking for some inspiration now more than ever."

"Working harder at keeping costs down and promoting the store more."

"I feel like I'm more focused for some reason. I just felt a renewal of spirit this year."

"We are located in a church with positive preaching."

"Expense reduction, new location with new services, hope for the economy to correct soon."

"As of the first quarter, we have had a big increase in the church supply business and also our robe business from Murphy Robes."

"Increased sales at the store, I believe due to people looking for solutions to their problems and turning to God. Also, books as a cheap form of entertainment."

"Trusting in the Lord more every day."

"Church members buying more devotions, etc. Different trends in worship."

"General market trends that suggest we are nearing the end of this economic downturn cycle."

"Do we have a choice? It is either be hopeful, or doom and gloom. That doesn't work at all, so I may as well be hopeful!"

"The ability to be creative and innovative. People are my business and that's where I need to focus more of my attention: being considerate of, sensitive to and anticipating their needs. Interaction is key."

"Sales are up as I have let our customers know of the possibility of closing our store."

"We have really pinpointed our customers and what they are looking for. They are also very loyal."


Retailers: Less hopeful

"Unable to secure financing."

"Concerned that Christian products now fall into ‘discretionary’ or ‘luxury’ category."

"Sales continue to decline."

"The constant rise in the unemployment rate in our immediate areas."

"This new generation has potentially moved away from music and books which are the mainstays presently."

"The number of families who have heads of households who have lost their jobs, foreclosed on homes."

"Customer base has continued to shrink. Current customers continue to reduce spending."

"Economic climate; changing customer purchasing habits."


Suppliers/Others: More hopeful

"I believe that things will come around. I am not in business for the short haul, I am in it for the long haul."

"Faith in the promises of God."

"Business has been quite good this year, and our customers are optimistic. Plus, our products are timeless, and people consider them necessities rather than luxuries."

"Understanding that set industry standards were more of a hindrance rather than the help they pretended to be."

"We are starting to see signs that consumers are shopping more."

"Signs that the economy may be getting better."

"The products we share speak to the very core of the needs of our customers—including their basic needs in living their daily lives. We provide maps that help our customers travel more successfully to their final destinations."

"A deeper understanding for the need to be totally dependent upon the Lord to provide for me."

"More people will be needing more hope and that will only happen with Jesus Christ. Therefore more people will be filling the churches."

"As the world system gets darker ... things of God are seemingly more appealing to those around us."

"For the most part, accounts are paying their bills which means they are still selling."

"I figure that it can't get much worse, so it has to get better."


Suppliers/Others: Less hopeful

"I don't see the CBA fiction market expanding to meet the interests of younger readers, but rather shrinking in its ability to influence."

"Continuing bad economic news; my own bank and investment—401(k)—statements; increased difficulty in finding work."

"The nation's accumulating debt and the knowledge that we will be facing significant inflation later this year."

"Continued decline in sales."

"The ridiculous spending by our federal government of money we do not have."

"Traffic and high prices."

Vital Signs: Economic realities Print Email
Written by Felicia Abraham   
Monday, 23 March 2009 04:11 PM America/New_York

Individual comments from retailers responding to our survey on business and the downturn in the economy:


QUESTION: What have you done to increase revenues?

“Added a department for the 19-30 (age group) called Youth Apparel and Accessories. This has been positive.”

“Changed and increased our advertising program to more targeted customer base.”

“Keyed into ongoing programs of the church more.”


“Try to take checks and cash instead of credit card, discount more to move inventory and try to sell more to each customer.”

“Trying some extra advertising, but it does not seem to be working as of February.”

“Put more items on sale.”

“Scheduling more off-site events to get out to the (local) parishes and conferences.”

“Added frequent buyer program, marketing through new distributed magazine, increased Facebook and Internet presence, and have scheduled more events.”

“Appointed someone full time to focus on developing church and school relationships.”

“Basically quit ordering extras.”

“Spotlight projects that are high-quality content and appealing price points.”

“Expanding marketing with Web site, local newspaper, constant focus on customer service.”

“Aggressive pricing and selling books in bulk to (local) Christian schools. There's not much profit but it is not a lot of work either.”

“Increased hours. Promotion. Better product mix.”

“Put old inventory, non-moving items on sale.”

“We keep talking about Jesus.”

“Purchasing more materials at greater discount prices.”

“We have a huge display of books, etc., that are on sale for $5, $7 & $10 … can't keep them in stock.”

“I offer a discount to churches who have purchased curriculum elsewhere to become a standing partner with my store—10% off their first quarter, then I automatically order for them each quarter after.”

“Have participated in some of Nelson's $5 book-of-the-month specials, which seem to sell well.”

“Continuing to get to know my customers and providing what they want ... buying wiser.”

“Reach out to new authors who live locally.”

“Try to hold on by direct mail.”

“Bought from clearance vendors, so I can offer really good deals in my store.”

“Advertise in different venues, increase store hours."

“Added different product lines.”

“Advertise, 25 %-off coupons on Bibles, devotional and inspirational books.”

“Re-organize, bring in new lines, in-store events, increase inventory.”

“Marketing Sunday school, VBS and robes more aggressively.”

“Open six days instead of five.”

“Selling online. Opening used book department.”

“Decreased frequency of sales, so that customers will have ‘urgency’ to purchase.”

“Planning in-store events geared to children as well as events to increase adult traffic into the store.”

“Exploring fundraisers with area churches and ministries.”

“Begun radio advertising again, that we had stopped.”

“Dealing with my suppliers to reduce my freight expenses.”

“Rearranged displays … gave the store a new look with the same items."

“We are working on giving better customer service and hope that draws in more sales.”

“More store events.”

“Being very price-sensitive.”

“Increase those things that speak to the times we live in now.”

“Try to engage customers more when they come into the store, and find something for them.”

“Direct mail, purchase mailing lists, offer sales.”

“Added musical instruments.”

“Tighter inventory control, monitor utilities.”

“Sidewalk sales.”

“Offer special in-house sales of new releases and pre-order sales of product to be released.”


QUESTION: What have you done to reduce expenses?

“Moved to volunteer instead of paid staff.”

“We have stopped ordering stockroom inventory.”

“Lower inventory levels.”

“Watch shipping, look for higher discounts, and don't order more than I need immediately.”

“Cut some hours for staff.”

“Cutting back on book stock and more selective merchandise ordering.”

“We have reduced our inventory by about 20%.”

“Cut back on lighting. Cut back on staff. Cut back on equipment upgrades.”


“Staff downsizing.”

“Cut postage meter, installed electronic thermostats, reduced hourly labor, cut out printed yellow page ads, requested reduction in lease rate.”

“Cut some advertising and slightly cut some part-time hours.”

“Move to more cost-effective suppliers, reducing shipping costs.”

“Purchasing many items on request, rather than having in inventory.”

“We wash our own windows, re-use paper, fix broken items and sell at a discount rather than write them off.”

“Not replaced two staff members.”

“Lower temperature, watch stock more closely.”

“Negotiated reduction in rent, reduction in interest payments, reduction in labor.”

“We are getting rid of a storage unit.”

“Tighten inventory, control payroll.”

“More aggressive in returning unsold product, more conservative on utilities and extra spending.”

“New location, new rent structure, less utilities, due to downsizing.”

“Salary/wage freeze.”

“Turned the thermostat down, reduced orders of re-stock products. Only getting what is absolutely necessary.”

Vital Signs Print Email
Written by Staff   
Tuesday, 09 December 2008 02:00 PM America/New_York

The purpose of the Vital Signs series is to raise issues of critical interest to the Christian products industry and to generate dialogue about them. Vital Signs is a joint project of Christian Retailing and Jim Seybert, president of The Jim Seybert Company.

Getting serious about e-books

altJanuary 2012

They may not like it, but retailers know they can’t ignore digital publishing

(Read further comments from respondents to our survey.)

Emphasizing Special Events

altOctober 2011

Stores are working harder to draw shoppers, adding more promotions and signings

Gatekeeper guidelines

altJuly 2011

How stores keep an eye on the content they offer and what worries them

Talking about technology

altJune 2011
 Evaluating how Internet tools and social media help in-store operations


altApril 2011

Changes in the market are impacting how stores handle inventory

(Read further comments from respondents to our survey.)


Three Key Concerns

altJanuary 2011
Christian Retailing's 2010 industry surveys reflect on new opportunities in key areas, including children's materials, DVDs and e-books. Look back with us on what we learned that could benefit stores in the new year.

Customer Connnections

altJune 2010

How stores care for shoppers--and handle their concerns

(Read further comments from respondents to our survey.)

Reviewing some of the big issues of 2009 

altJanuary 2010

What retailers and suppliers think about today's Christian products industry

Retail reformation


June 2009

How the economy is impacting consumer habits and business practices

(Read further comments from respondents to our survey.)

Economic realities


April 2009

Some signs of hope amid the downturn details

(Read the comments from respondents to our survey on the economy.)

Unwrapping gifts


March 2009

Assessing the category's challenges and opportunities

(Read the comments from respondents to our survey on Christian gifts.)

Holiday hopes


November 2008

Post-Christmas expectations more ho-hum than ho-ho

Core competencies


September 2008

Retailers assess the benefits and drawbacks of core inventory programs

Personally speaking


July 2008

Attitudes and actions beyond the workplace

Internet issues


July 2008

How independent retailers are facing up to their biggest challenge

Facing the music


April  2008

Retailers remain committed to a struggling category, despite the digital challenge

Friendly focus

January 2008


How Christian retailers can succeed, by those who care about them