The giving of gifts is a ritual going back thousands of years that has significant impact on relationships and even cultures. While experts cite social, psychological, and philanthropic reasons for why people give presents, retailers know Christian store shoppers often buy gifts to share an uplifting or biblical message. Gift categories today are expanding and playing a more prominent role in the life of Christian retail.

“It used to be that our books provided the business and gifts were a sideline; now it’s becoming a gift business that allows us to continue to sell books,” says Katrina Skinner, CEO of Sacred Melody & Gift Shop in Syracuse, New York.

Christian MARKET recently spoke with retailers and gift suppliers to learn more about the inspiration behind Christian gifts, their buying and selling strategies, and the challenges they face.

Vision

Christian gift manufacturers bring a unique perspective to the product they create.

“Our mission statement is our vision: to bring glory to God and inspiration to people in all walks of life,” says Sherry Morris, marketing manager at Carpentree. “As we review what’s happening in the market, we design into our vision. Our goal is to be on trend and on message for our Christian stores.”

Peter Graham Dunn, founder, CEO, and board chair of P. Graham Dunn, hopes his “dealers can provide non-commodity products that are a one of a kind, produced in the USA, and that provide for the retailer markup margins that may not be available through the merchandising of commodity items. Our gift items aren’t as readily purchased online as are commodity products. Our customers like to touch, feel, lift, and scrutinize our products before they make the decision to purchase.”

Skinner agrees “gifts are different as you have to touch and feel them. It’s more conducive to a shop where staff is really hands on. We also carry many more general market ideas. It’s a very delicate balance, but gives us an extra ministry. Some people will pick up a journal or calendar or a devotional that changes their life when they came in for something else.”

Changing lives is why Jaylen LaGrande, chief steward at the 3:16 Collection, is in Christian retail. He sees gifts as a tool of inspiration, so he carries “a large selection … that uplifts hearts, encourages believers, and plants seeds of salvation for nonbelievers.”

Skinner has enjoyed the ministry benefits of making gifts a larger part of her store’s product mix. “We’ve become about half gift shop, half Christian bookstore,” she says. “The gift shop allows us to connect with our local community for their everyday needs; it’s a market that brings people in again and again.”

Strategy

For Carpentree, occasions drive a lot of what they make. “The research bears out the need for offering a variety of gifts for all occasions,” says Morris. “We also look at demographics, which should play a central role in the development of gift products. A design has to be more than cute. It needs to speak to an age group for whom it is targeted. Some designs are cross-generational. When you can find that sweet spot, you have a winner.”

Skinner also relies on research, tracking gift categories carefully. For example, she discovered that baby items have sold better in the kids department of her store than they did in the gift department. “There’s more room for cross-selling and future sales to people who are buying for baby,” she says.

Her approach also takes into account how product looks on the shelf. “There’s a balance between buying by company, price, type, and look. Some product we stock because it sells, but it doesn’t look pretty, so we put it in a corner somewhere, preferably in the back of the store where we have to take fans to it. Other product we buy because it looks good. We’re buying more décor items that make the store look good and that are selling well, as long as we keep a good price point.”

Ashleigh Steele, gift buyer for Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, tries to “keep things modern and current while still keeping a Christian message and meaning. I actually keep in mind three or four different people that I know—and who have very different styles and tastes—and try to envision if they would buy the product or not.” She also considers the area in which the store is located, how an item would look in the store, and if the product is different enough or too different from other items on display.

When ordering, Skinner always starts “with our staple companies, and then [we] look to be on trend with new product, interesting things, or items that make you smile or laugh. We’ll pick a few items from a new company to try out (usually a good ‘try’ purchase is $200-$500 max). It’s also important to not keep an item past its lifespan, so we don’t do a lot of re-orders. For the most part, we don’t sell very deep on items; variety seems to work better in our market. For that reason, one to two of an item on an initial order, maybe two to four on a reorder.”

Dunn’s approach to gifts is fed by information. His company closely follows competitors, secret shops retailers, studies trade publications, and travels to China at least once a year to get ahead of what’s being imported by major importers. An unexpected inspiration comes from a TV program, he adds. “We’ve also been following the Fixer Upper reality series starring Chip and Joanna Gaines, a couple who has driven strong consumer trends nationwide.”

Dunn also has an advantage in operating a 15,000-square-foot retail store that keeps him in touch with consumer trends. “We study closely what has worked for us in the recent past. We are quick to abandon what we consider to be our core product base when we notice that it’s no longer on trend.”

Tracking

Retailers and suppliers may have different approaches to giftware but both have similar goals: to inspire and reach people. It’s important to Skinner to select vendors of integrity and mission.

“I look for local companies whenever possible to build community,” she says. “We look to build relationships with our salespeople and that drives a lot of our vendor purchases.”

Part of the business relationship is tracking and ordering, which has been complicated for gift product but remains very important, says Skinner.

“Inventory tracking has allowed us to build our gift department. I started using ISBN codes and tracking gifts 17 years ago, and it has made all the difference. Time and again we’ve looked at a product and thought it sold well or didn’t, and the numbers told a different story,” she says. “You can’t run on intuition alone; it has to be checked and backed by fact.”

Skinner uses Bookstore Manager to track product. “Some items are grouped into one ISBN if that is how they are purchased. We have separate categories under the gift department: kitchen, home décor, baby, wedding, candles, etc.”

Trending

When it comes to what’s popular in giftware, Morris says the Christian market follows general market trends overall, “but sometimes there are special events—movies, books, etc.—that are outside the typical gift focus.”

Going strong in 2017, according to Dunn, will be repurposed, distressed, rustic, antique looks with a lot of black and white, grays, and limited bright colors. Also popular are pallets, wood boxes, coasters, photo frames, and peeled paint. He observes “that ‘soft inspiration’ is in demand in both Christian bookstores and in the secular market.”

“While any item in a Christian store has gift potential, some items are more general in nature,” explains Morris. “Many of these items are things that people just buy for themselves. Decorative wall décor, home accessories, and other functional items can fall into this category. In designing products, we try to offer things that have occasion appeal, but also strive to make things people will want for their homes and offices that are useful and/or decorative.”

LaGrande believes Christian retail needs more unique gift items. “I would love to see some stuff with new Scriptures. The Bible has such a wide range of verses yet we see the same Scriptures on everything.”

Steele also wants to see more variety in Bible verses on product and would like “an inspirational line that comes from some of today’s best-selling authors.” For Baker Book House, she says plain wooden crosses, newer concepts, (i.e. Calvary cross necklaces), and modern flair items, such as chevrons, arrows, and the Boho look, are selling well.

Popular in Skinner’s store are cards, jewelry, baby items, kitchen product, angels, lighthouses, small magnets, pocket tokens, bookmarks, Bible covers, home décor, scarves, lotion, and soaps.

Challenges

LaGrande believes one of the biggest hurdles he faces with gifts is margin. “Being a retailer in the mall and competing with so many other stores, sometimes the 50 percent margin (nearly 40 after paying shipping) is too slim.”

“Margin is a big one that I don’t think has caught up in the Christian market,” agrees Skinner. “Smaller stores just cannot survive on 40 to 50 percent margin. We’ve been pricing items minimum 55 percent, but moving toward 60 percent whenever possible, and customers are paying. At 50 percent, by the time shipping and discounts are factored, the margin really drops. When companies pre-price items, we can’t upsell. General market gifts are more used to 60 to 70 percent margin, and we really have to move that way in the Christian realm.”

She points out “this isn’t about ‘raking’ it in; it’s about survival and paying to have good staff in a time when minimum wage and insurance and other expenses are skyrocketing. We often buy when items are on sale and then make up the margin on those items, sometimes getting 80 percent. This covers for the items we have to carry but don’t make much on. We don’t sell deep—we sell variety, and when variety sells over depth, margin matters.”

Skinner remains committed to carrying items other stores don’t have but admits this gets difficult when more and more is sold in big box stores and online. “We drop gift lines when they start getting offered in box stores or online at better prices,” she says.

While stating many suppliers do a good job, Steele believes “keeping up with trends can be a hit or miss when it comes to gifts in Christian retail. Sometimes Christian vendors are stuck in an era, or they get on track a day behind everyone else.”

From the suppliers’ side of the table, Morris says her company’s challenge is always to be watching the trends. “The market shifts quickly, so to stay ahead we have to be diligent to watch both the market shows and all available research to know what might be coming.”

Dunn notes that while his company’s success has led to unexpected challenges, such as keeping up with the space requirements to accommodate the manufacture of domestic goods and maintaining efficiencies of production, he always keeps in mind retailers and shoppers.

“The purchase decision is driven both by emotion and affordability,” he says. “We strive to hit each of those hot buttons with the consumer.”

— Lora Schrock

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