When industry leaders sat down together in Cincinnati recently to talk frankly about some of the big issues facing the Christian retail channel, they did so on the heels of some welcome good news.

Their open conversation at UNITE 2016 in June was preceded by details of new research that pointed to “a huge opportunity … an inflection point in Christian retail” according to presenter Kristen McLean.

Director of New Business Development at Nielsen BookScan, she presented fresh data that she said offered “an opportunity if we are willing to step beyond our traditional ways of thinking, and think about new solutions and ideas.”

Religion publishing, where four out of five titles are Christian, has been growing since 2010 and was one of the only categories to increase last year, she revealed. That trend, in the light of the problems created by Family Christian Stores’ bankruptcy troubles and other issues, spoke to “the resiliency of the market.”

Christian bookstores’ share of the market held steady from 2014 to 2015 at 17 percent. While direct-to-consumer Christian sales grew from 11 percent to 19 percent over the same period, this area was “a difficult business to build,” McLean observed, pointing out that nine out of ten books are still sold through physical outlets.

Suppliers, distributors, and retailers attending the UNITE 2016 general session on “Leadership in Disruption” moderated by CBA President Curtis Riskey were asked to consider “whether or not as a market we’re investing in strategies that really foster a strong, multi-faceted ecosystem.

“We’re not going to walk away from our online sales, or our catalog sales—we need them,” said McLean. “But we also really need to invest in our brick-and-mortar Christian retail community, because that channel can do something that none of the other channels can really do.”

A key demographic

Perhaps the greatest opportunity at Christian retail lies not with its current core customers, the 18 percent of “committed Protestants” who account for 70 percent of all dollar sales, she suggested. Rather, it may be among the 31 percent of “professing Christians,” who say their faith is important but who may attend church only occasionally.

“In my opinion, the professing Christians are the future of this business,” McLean said. “They’re reading a lot of Christian. What do they want, how can we engage them, and are we packaging our stuff properly for whatever it is they’re looking for in their Christian content?”

Another reason this segment is so important, McLean said, is that it tends to be younger—half of them under 44—than the core shoppers, 70 percent of whom are 45 and older. “We have to figure out how to connect with these guys and create content that appeals to them,” McLean said, “and it makes me ask the question, ‘What does the Christian retail environment of the future look like?’”

McLean’s presentation highlighted what Chuck Wallington, president of The Covenant Group and owner of Christian Supply, Inc., in Spartanburg, South Carolina, called “the elephant in the room,” as he joined supplier CEOs to discuss some of the implications of the research. It was that Christian retail and the church in general “has more or less lost a generation.”

The lone retailer representative on the four-strong panel, Wallington had words of praise for suppliers. “Sometimes our industry is perceived as us versus them,” he said. “The vendor community in our industry, by and large, has been incredibly supportive of this channel. We are an expensive channel to work with, fragmented …

“Our vendor community has really bent over backwards to probably invest more energy, more money, more time in our channel than any other, but I think the reason for that is the big thing we do for them is discoverability. We introduce people to product they would never meet in any other way.”

That prompted Tyndale House Publishers Chairman and CEO Mark Taylor to suggest one way stores might improve their connection with customers—by somehow replicating the Amazon feature that recommends other titles to someone who has just bought a book. One way to do that might be staff recommendations, he said. The frontliner who knows their store’s inventory “makes all the difference in the world,” he said.

A great experience

Additional sales are increasingly important as traffic drops, panelists agreed, with James Barnett, president of DaySpring Cards, noting that consumers as a whole have made 50 percent less trips to retail stores over the last five years. However, only 6-8 percent of all purchases are made online, so “we still have a great opportunity to reach that consumer in the retail environment.”

While traffic was important, so was serving the customers that are coming now, Taylor said. “Are we meeting their needs?” He told of hearing from a retailer at the show that only 48 percent of visitors to their store bought anything. “Yikes!” Taylor said. “This is pie in the sky, maybe, but we should be up in the 80 to 90 percent range. If we are not meeting their needs then we need to quickly figure out what went wrong, why did she come in but she didn’t buy something?”

In response, Wallington noted that low conversion rate was not only lost money but also a missed ministry opportunity. Meanwhile, research at his store had found that 70 percent of non-church supply purchases were as gifts to give to someone else, he said—pointing to another opportunity to outperform Amazon, where it was harder to make those kind of buying decisions.

Stores need to work at giving customers “an experience,” said Terry Hemmings, president and CEO of Provident Music Group, “because they can buy stuff anywhere.” He suggested more in-store events with speakers and artists that “provide an opportunity for consumers to engage more deeply in the product,” to help differentiate Christian retail from big-box competition.

One way Christian Supply has been doing that is by live-streaming its daily staff devotions. Though his store sends out a lot of catalogs, they only “tell people what products we have,” Wallington said. “The social media things we do tell people who we are, and I think they need to see that, otherwise we’re just trying to sell them something all the time. They need to see our heart for the community and our heart for them and the products that we sell.”

Maybe 300 of the store’s social media followers might see something if it was posted, but live events can get several thousand at-least-partial views. “There’s a value when they see that personal side of us,” he said, “and when they see our interest in kingdom things, too, beyond (that) we’re just here making a dollar by selling them something.”

A different emphasis

Wallington encouraged stores not to be overwhelmed by the scale of the Amazon challenge. It was important that they maintained some online presence, so that shoppers could find them as a source for products even when they were not physically open. “We need to be online,” he said. “There’s not a retailer in this room who would say, well Walmart moved into my neighborhood so I’m going to move out.”

During her presentation, McLean encouraged Christian stores to be clear about how they differed from Amazon and leverage their strengths. “Amazon doesn’t know what to do with five different versions of the Bible,” she noted.

Among the differences between Amazon and Christian retail were its emphasis on convenience contrasted with the channel’s emphasis on community, she said. Other differences: efficiency versus experience, and information versus identity. There were ways to help customers in-store that they “could never be helped online,” McLean added.

Working out how to do that has never been more important, Riskey underscored in his introduction to the session. “The world is changing,” he said, with the Gospel being misrepresented, misunderstood, and maligned. In the face of growing cultural opposition and open persecution of the church, Christian media was an important tool in communicating truth, while Christian stores were “missionaries in local communities,” providing a connection to content that reflects the Gospel. “The business model must change, though” he said.

-Andy Butcher