>>> Jaylen LaGrande is used to customers asking him about the owner when they see him behind the checkout at Religious Expressions. He knows that not many 21-year-olds are to be found running their own successful business, especially in a niche where others have tried and failed to establish a foothold.
But through a refreshing mix of faith, entrepreneurial spirit, and youthful enthusiasm, LaGrande is seeing his fledgling enterprise bring something of a fresh look to Christian retailing in a demanding environment. His two Texas outlets are among just a handful of Christian retail efforts across the country located in busy shopping malls.
Not due to graduate from business school until the middle of 2014, LaGrande is the first to admit that he’s still got “a lot to learn.” But while he isn’t setting himself up as any kind of expert, his experiences to date can offer encouragement, insights, and challenge to those with more years in the industry.
LaGrande seems to have been ahead of the game from the get-go. He was born a month premature, inheriting the family business bug: a grandfather owned a trailer park and a barber’s shop, while one of his grandmothers ran a record store. His first story, written at the age of five, was called “Five Dollar Charlie,” and at eight he staged his own “auto show” in his mom’s basement, charging people a quarter to come down and see his model cars.
“Ever since I can remember I was trying to do something creative,” he says. “I sold candy in school. In the summer I’d set up a bake sale and get the police and firefighters to come by. I always had a vision of what I wanted my life to look like; at five and six, I’d draw plans for houses I was going to live in one day.”
In addition to a business background, his childhood in Detroit was steeped in faith and churchgoing. “A lot of people told me I was going to be a preacher when I grew up,” says LaGrande, reinforcing that view by liberally peppering his conversation with Bible quotations and references.
The proceeds from each of his youthful enterprises would be used to fund the next slightly more ambitious one. Having taught himself how to use a computer, LaGrande started his own line of greeting cards and used the money from that for his first foray into Christian retailing.
A Ministry Focus
Having bought a bunch of Christian-themed tee-shirts on a trip to California, he took them back to Michigan and used the basement again, this time for a pre-Christmas apparel sale. Then he borrowed his mom’s car and launched Religious Expressions by selling tees out of the trunk. “I never really thought of it as a business,” he says. “It was a ministry.”
LaGrande wanted to provide Christian apparel to other youth after having gone through his own adolescent struggles, feeling pulled to try to fit in with other teens and coming to embrace a personal faith of his own. “I fell victim to wanting to dress the trendiest, and who could have the nicest clothes,” he recalls. “I realized that if I wanted to reflect my lifestyle, I had to change.”
Business operations were put aside for the time-being when La-Grande graduated high school and went to study business at Wayland Baptist University, in Plainview, TX. But then one day he was walking through South Plains Mall in nearby Lubbock when “something just jumped in my spirit. I thought wouldn’t it be cool if I could start a Christian store there?”
Though he had just 38 cents in his bank account, he called the mall to see about leasing a kiosk for the 2011 Christmas season. That was too expensive, but he was offered instead a 144-square foot “glass box” vacated by a shoe repairer. With a $5,000 loan from a relative, he was open for business two weeks later.
What was supposed to be a seasonal thing was more successful than he anticipated. “People kept saying you can’t leave, you have to stay.” In March 2012, LaGrande moved Religious Expressions to a permanent, 1,300-square-foot location in the mall, next to a Forever 21, the Christian-owned fashion chain.
Expanding floor space meant increasing his inventory. Added to tee-shirts were jewelry, some books and music, and accessories. A year later, LaGrande opened a second location in Amarillo’s Westgate Mall. While he’s focused on learning all he can through these two outlets—noting how different locations and customer bases require modified merchandising—he has an eye to the future. In the back office there’s a map of the country with more than 60 possible future malls identified.
While other Christian stores may rely more on being a destination shopping choice, Religious Expressions has to compete against some high-end retailers for passerby customers. That means an emphasis on strong window displays. “What’s a big store and pretty merchandise if nobody is coming in to see it?” LaGrande notes.
Bringing a “fresh, upscale approach,” Religious Expressions changes up its displays frequently. One, spotlighting apparel promoting “God’s armor,” featured a full-size suit of armor and homemade shields. A back-toschool promotion centered on school lockers stuffed with different school supplies and accessories, and a chalkboard announcing Religious Expressions’ own “God’s Got My Back” designs.
A Fresh Look
“We serve a God of excellence, of royalty,” LaGrande says. “We’re supposed to be members of Christ’s kingdom and I feel like Christian stores should reflect that, not have dark and dingy carpets, and walls that haven’t been painted in 20 years.”
LaGrande doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but he did know what he didn’t want his store to look like. “I didn’t know a lot about Christian retail stores when I started, but I knew I didn’t want mine to be like the ones I grew up around,” he says. “They all had this particular feel and smell. They seemed kind of drab and blah.
“God doesn’t always move the same way. If you read the Bible, he moved in different ways each time. That’s why you have to break the barriers of tradition. I’m not saying become like the world, but we have to open ourselves to not look like something that nobody wants. Church has become boring to young people. Worshiping God is fun, so our stores should be fun, too. We have to change with the times.”
Part of his reframing is as a Christian lifestyle store, rather than a bookstore. He carries only about 20 or so of the top-sellers, some Bibles, and two of his own self-published books. The music selection is limited, too; mostly hip-hop, plus some worship and gospel. His apparel lines include Kerusso, Red Letter 9, Not Of This World, and Gardenfire.
A Marketing Emphasis
Running the store has been “better than any lessons the professors could have given me,” LaGrande says. “I have learned without a doubt that ‘retail is de-tail’—you have to pay close attention to every aspect of your business. You have to be able to manage inventory and merchandising. And you have to market yourself. They always say it takes money to make money, but now I realize that you have to invest in yourself, in your brand, if you want to take it to the next level.”
For LaGrande, that meant using a big chunk of his start-up loan to get a stylish sign for the store, and a continued emphasis on marketing. He works social media hard— Facebook, Twitter—and has been working on an ad he plans to air on local television and screen at the Westgate movie theater.
One of his toughest lessons to date: “I thought I could hire my friends.” He now acknowledges that doesn’t work, though he says he views his nine-strong staff as family, and they go out to eat together sometimes. “But the main thing I learned is that I can’t hire friends because they aren’t going to take me seriously as a boss.”
Part of that may be to do with his age, he recognizes. “I get asked all the time how I’m doing all this,” he says. “The main thing is that I didn’t really know what I had to lose, so why not step out there? Someone said leap and the net will appear; that’s kind of what I did. I listen to what the Holy Spirit tells me and then go to try and do it.
“I don’t really question. When God tells you to do something, He isn’t asking you to figure it all out, He’s asking you to believe, He is asking you to trust that what He says is going to be done. I have made mistakes and am learning a lot of stuff, but I have crazy faith.”
That includes looking to have not only a string of Religious Expressions stores in the future, but ultimately a chain of hotels, and a Bible museum. With just a couple of years under his belt in Christian retailing, La-Grande knows that longevity is an important measure of success, and as he looks ahead he says, “I believe that if we continue to operate in faith and listen to that inner voice and rely on the leading of the Holy Spirit, we will continue to be successful.
“That’s one of the promises of God. He said that He will make us to be the head and not the tail. A lot of people in the business world ask me, what is the secret to your success? When I talk about faith in God they look at me like I’m crazy. But I don’t really have a secret formula. I’ve gotten where I am by faith and prayer.”