Reconnecting with church accounts can build steady income and growth opportunities.

The Bible department remains the cornerstone of many Christian stores not just because it’s the heartbeat of their ministry, but also because it’s an area that has been less impacted by online sales than others. A lot of people looking for a Bible want to be able to see and inspect what they are buying.

Church supplies are another category where some shoppers are more likely to choose in-store to online purchasing. “There’s a lot of church supplies you can’t find as easily online, so they need to come to the local store,” says Jack Savage, former CBA board chairman.

He should know if anyone does: He’s been successfully selling church supplies for more than half a century—first at Jack’s Religious Gift Shop in Salisbury, Maryland, and for the past few years through his by-appointment Jack’s Church Supplies.

“The town was so small, around 20,000 people, that we just couldn’t sell enough books and Bibles and gifts to support us and our staff,” he says. “We had to serve the churches.”

Some stores seem to have given up on the potential market available to them through local churches, either because they feel they’re too busy to invest the time needed, or that it’s simply not worth the effort because churches do their buying online.

But others are finding what Savage has known for a long time: The church connection can be made to work.

DEVELOPING A CHURCH BUSINESS

“[Connecting with churches] has been a godsend,” says Betty Goeckner of the income generated for Lifeline Christian Books and Gifts in Effingham, Illinois, since she and her husband, Ken, started visiting local churches a few years ago. “It has helped turn the store around.”

Meanwhile, Baker Book House (BBH) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has seen its church business increase by almost 70 percent in the two years since former indie retailer Bob Gillett arrived to take over the program.

Originally launched as Amazon Challenge, offering to better the online giant’s terms for churches that committed to ordering through the store, the program has been renamed Baker First to avoid needlessly advertising the competitor. That sales increase hasn’t come without effort: Gillett has visited 350 churches in the area since he began, with about half of them coming on board.

Patience and persistence is key to successful church business, says Savage, who with his wife, Ruth Ann, still goes out to measure choir members for their robes on-site.

“You need to hang in there with it,” he says, noting that sometimes when working with small congregations it can take time for purchasing decisions to get approved by the right committee. But the results can make it worthwhile.

As with Bibles, having the products on hand for people to touch and inspect is critical, says Savage. His church store has samples of everything from robes and communion supplies to bulletins and ushers gloves, lecterns and flags, kneelers and communion tables. Recently someone from a local church came by to pick up supplies and saw a display of different kinds of stacking chairs. The Savages took several samples out to the church and came back with a $14,000 order.

TIPS FOR SUCCESS

As the Savages wind down their Christian retail life, they aren’t actively pursuing new accounts—though they currently have more than 1,000 on their books. But for stores looking to ramp up their church accounts business, Goeckner and Gillett have some advice.

  • Monday visits should be avoided because many churches offices are closed then; Fridays aren’t good either, as it’s another off day or everyone is getting ready for the weekend.
  • Mornings are the best time for visits, according to Goeckner, because some churches are staffed only part-time.
  • Don’t be put off by an empty parking lot. “Don’t assume no one’s there; they could be parked around the back where the church office often is,” says Goeckner.
  • Don’t make an appointment. “Just talk with whoever is in the office; they often are the ones who decide where they are going to get the books the pastor wants anyway,” says Gillett.
  • Don’t be afraid of church staff. “They are wonderful people who are there to serve others,” says Gillett.
  • Don’t try to sell the first time. “Go as an ambassador of the store, with the idea of how you can help them do their job better,” says Goeckner.
  • Don’t go empty-handed. Gillett sometimes takes little goodies. Goeckner leaves them with a single sheet listing some of the store’s offers—on good, colored stock, so it stands out—or a catalog or publisher samples.
  • Don’t talk about your own church. “That’s not the issue; it’s their church and your store,” says Goeckner.

Regular follow-up contact is important, they both say, to help keep the store top of mind and because staff or volunteers often change in churches, meaning someone new is given the buying responsibility.

Additionally, they urge, don’t assume a big church won’t be interested in your service, or that if you’re already serving one, you already have all their business (oftentimes there will be the “right hand/ left hand” syndrome at play).

While both men offer deliveries on some orders, they also emphasize the value of getting church buyers into the store itself, where they get to see other resources that are available. This year BBH turned Administrative Professionals’ Day into a weeklong event at the store, with treats and prizes. “It really cemented a lot of additional business for us,” says Gillett.

DO YOUR RESEARCH

For Savage, the sweet spot has been smaller churches, many of which don’t have a full-time secretary who might otherwise order supplies online. There may not be a great margin on things like communion supplies, he notes, but they bring people back to the store on a regular basis and the income adds up over time.

Getting to know the particular culture and tradition of each church is essential, Savage says, not only in terms of understanding what sort of products they’re looking for, but also in building a good relationship. “You need to know whether to call them reverend or pastor or Mr. Some don’t have titles. But if you don’t know who they are, you can’t know what they need.”

During his years serving churches, Savage found an additional market—providing graduation robes for local schools. He also passes on a way of keeping a store’s name before a church it is servicing: All the giving envelopes he provides are printed with the store’s name.

At BBH, Gillett recognizes that its church emphasis is easier by virtue of its scale, but he maintains it is doable for smaller stores, with a background similar to the Savages.

When he had his own independent store in a town of 10,000 people, he knew that “in order to survive we had to have a good base of church business, which we went out and built.” He adds, “The opportunities are there. I would encourage any Christian store to just get out there and talk with their local churches.”

He also encourages stores to talk to each other about how they’ve learned to build church business, inviting them to email him with their ideas and questions at bob. gillett@bakerbookhouse.com.

—Andy Butcher