Gifts and Bibles form foundation of Rio Rancho store.

With three decades at a nationwide chain under his belt, Mike Huffstuttler has learned a thing or two about retail, but he still reminds himself that you don’t know what you don’t know. Twinned with a commitment to keep things looking fresh, that openness to change has served him well in joining the Christian products world.

Mike and Jane Huffstuttler believe God led them to New Mexico.

Taking early retirement to fulfill the long-held dream of owning his own business, Huffstuttler opened Believer’s Christian Gifts in August 2015 with a major focus on gift products. On opening day, the 3,000-square-foot store in Rio Rancho, New Mexico had just a few feet of Bibles and one Choice Books spinner, as he knew those titles moved well in the regional stores he oversaw for Eckerd’s, then CVS.

The emphasis seemed right, both from his general market experience and all he’d been told about the way Christian retail was going. But within a short time of opening, he found customers asking for more Bible selection and devotional reading than he had, so he started to bring in a few extra titles.

Within three months he had expanded his Bible section almost seven times and added 70 feet of devotional reading, with more children’s products added later. The reading slice of his store’s pie went from around just 5 percent to 30 percent.

While acknowledging that he is still learning the particularities of Christian retail, Huffstuttler also has insights to offer from his past experience in the general market, which included opening 30 new stores over a 10-year period. For example, having sold through a gift line, you may not want to bring the same things in again, even though they went well, he suggests. Rather, it might be time for something new.

“We try to replace with something new that the customer has not seen before,” he explains. “We always want them to be coming in and seeing something new, something different.”

That includes moving product around internally on a regular basis. “You don’t have to invest in a lot of inventory to let the customers know that you’re always keeping things fresh,” says Huffstuttler, who believes in “one to show, one to go” levels. “Many times people will come in and say, ‘Gosh you’ve got new items.’ Well, they’re not—I’ve just moved them around.”

HELPING CUSTOMERS

Huffstuttler has noticed a difference in the typical Christian retail store shopper. Many of them are not as much impulse buyers as in the stores he used to oversee, he observes. “Compared to my past experience, we get a lot of customers who come in and know what they’re looking for,” he says.

The distinction may seem subtle but it’s significant. Such visitors are already predisposed to buy something; it’s just the selection they need help with, so the nature of the interaction with them may change. “I’m amazed at how many people who come in with something in mind; they just want us to pick out the gifts for them,” he chuckles. That means being well-versed in what’s on the shelves, of course.

The Bible department expansion was driven in part by his realization that it’s a category that does not lend itself well to online sales. “You can’t really tell what the font size is like online,” he notes. “People like to open it up and see what it feels like in their hands.” Broadening the department, with a seating area where people can sit down and compare translations and editions, was simply “a no brainer.”

When he first thought about making the switch to Christian retail, Huffstuttler planned to return to Arizona from Rio Rancho, where he and his wife, Jane, had lived for just a few years. But “God just redirected me,” and he and Jane ended up opening Believer’s in New Mexico.

As a brand new store, they reached out to local churches by sending out more than 200 handwritten cards introducing themselves. A few months later, Huffstuttler followed up with a visit to some churches with gifts of $10 coupons for church staff or people in the congregation who might appreciate them.

Now marketing efforts focus on existing customers because “word of mouth is the most effective thing for us.” Taking care of shoppers includes helping less-tech-savvy visitors find things online and even advising them that might be able to get something cheaper that way, and placing the order for them. “We don’t make anything from that, but we do it to help.”

CREATING BUZZ

In-store events have been an important part of creating a buzz around the store. There’s some kind of happening—often more than one—every Saturday. Local arts and crafts folks are invited to set up a table in the store and keep the proceeds from whatever they sell, from homemade jewelry and ceramic tiles to essential oils.

“We don’t charge them anything to be there, though if they have things that we also sell in the store, I do a price check to make sure that they’re not being undersold,” says Huffstuttler. The benefit to him? “By getting customers walking into the store to see them, they’ll walk through the rest and see what we have also. It’s free advertising.”

The events are promoted on Facebook, which has proved to be a good marketing tool. “You’ve got to post something at least every day,” Huffstuttler has learned. “Things don’t carry over.” And he’s discovered that simply posting pictures of products, whether that’s a new book cover or a piece of jewelry, really isn’t enough.

“It’s social media,” he notes, emphasizing the search for connection, not just information. “People like to see pictures of other people, not just posts of a Bible or a cross. We post a lot of pictures of people setting up events on Saturdays or buying their first Bible, things like that.”

That desire for personal connection also drives some people’s visits, Huffstuttler believes. “Many churches seem to be staffed only at the weekends, so Monday through Friday there’s no one there for someone in the community who wants to find somebody to talk to and pray with. So they come here.”

PRAYING CHALLENGE

“You don’t have to invest in a lot of inventory to let customers know that you’re always keeping things fresh,” says Huffstuttler.

The Huffstuttlers started a store prayer book to list all the needs and requests shared with them by people who come in, starting each day by praying over some of the concerns. “This was not anything we were expecting, praying with people,” says Huffstuttler, who has found being stretched like this challenging but rewarding.

He’s still getting used to the way Christian retail provides an opportunity to touch lives deeply, recalling when two young men came into the store just a few minutes before closing one night. “I jumped to the conclusion that they were going to rob me,” he admits.

The reality turned out to be rather different. One of the two men was a new Christian, having been led to faith by another friend just a few weeks previously. This other man had died following a car accident, and the new believer wanted a Bible in his memory.

“We put his name on the Bible,” Huffstuttler remembers, “and he just broke down. I’ll never forget that night. We feel blessed to be a part of God’s plan here in Rio Rancho.”

Another big change between his former world and his new industry is the open-handedness of other Christian retailers. Huffstuttler talks gratefully of the advice and encouragement he has received from suppliers and other storeowners alike. “They have all been a great help; it’s been amazing.”

Anticipating further changes as the store matures, Huffstuttler has no regrets about his decision to walk away from a secure corporate position.

“We’ve tightened our belts a bit and cut back in some things,” he says. “We’re not going on cruises, but at the end of the month we are taken care of both in the business and at home and we are okay with that.”

— Andy Butcher