Many Tree of Life stores include a coffee shop with “real coffee and baristas, not an air pot sitting there with a tip jar. Real community.”

At first sight, Tree of Life stores may seem to be so different than most regular Christian retail outlets that they have little to offer by way of example. Customers are young, academic textbooks predominate, and there’s hardly a gift in sight.

But the successful college campus based chain Darren Campbell and his wife, Nancy, have built over the past near-two decades has plenty of lessons for Christian stores wanting to connect with the next generation and willing to think a little differently.

Graduating with a business degree and a youth pastor’s heart, Campbell wanted to open “a Christian bookstore that wasn’t your grandmother’s.” The couple borrowed $35,000 to open their first store in Marion, IN. It featured a coffee bar—whose bottled syrup selection led to the rumor circulating among some churches that the place was offering alcohol—and live music and new release events that drew students from local Christian colleges.

Then the Campbells were approached by one of the schools to make a pitch to take over its bookstore. The self-described “young knuckleheads” won the contract with a simple proposal that advocated “what’s good for ministry is good for business and what’s good for business is good for ministry—the idea that if you treat people the way they want to be treated, in the long run it will pay off.”

That has proved to be the case: Today Tree of Life has 16 physical locations at Christian schools and serves several others remotely. Among its partners are the Campbells’ alma mater, Indiana Wesleyan University, Trevecca Nazarene University, and Oklahoma Baptist University. Some stores operate under the college’s name, others as Tree of Life.

Textbooks that students have to buy are sold as competitively as possible, with the margin coming on collegiate supplies and other book sales. The only evangelical company serving the student book market of 18- to 25-year-olds, Tree of Life has become something of an expert on a demographic largely absent from much of the CBA world.

Understanding Millennials

Darren Campbell emphasizes the high value Millennials place on relationships and authenticity.

“Being real is very important to this generation; they can smell fake a mile away,” he says. “They want to know whether you really want to get to know them, or whether you just want to sell them the latest trinket.”

Price is important, too, but not because they’re cheap.

“They wear poverty like a badge of honor,” Campbell observes, remembering his youthful days proudly wearing branded clothing. “Now, if you point out someone wearing a North Face jacket, they’ll apologize and explain it away, that their parents bought it for them for their birthday or they got it at Goodwill.”

Though making lots of money is not a driver, making a difference is. With this in mind, Tree of Life hosts an annual Hoodies for the Homeless promotion. Customers who bring in an old hoodie, which is donated to a local ministry serving street people, get 20 percent off a new one. In addition to driving traffic, the event helps bond the customer to the store over helping others.

Tree of Life customers buy a lot of Bibles— “They really love the ESV; there’s lot of brand loyalty there”—and they like journals and books on relationships. The biggest hurdle for the typical Christian retailer to overcome in reaching Millennials is the gift department, which has likely been expanding as book and music sales have dropped.

Most contemporary Christian gifts “are just not relevant to the customers we’re serving,” says Campbell. “Some of it is a little kitschy and it does turn off that younger generation, the one God has really called us to serve, so we’re trying to stock product they would relate to.”

Creating Community

Many Tree of Life stores include a coffee shop with “real coffee and baristas, not an air pot sitting there with a tip jar. Real community.” Creating that environment doesn’t have to mean spending a lot of money on decor and fixtures, though.

Campbell sums up his store-look philosophy as keep it clean, don’t overwhelm people, and have good signage.

“It doesn’t have to be dark or hip. I don’t think that painting the walls really matters. Young people will go to the most awful place of a coffee shop if they find community there,” he says.

And though they’re at home on social media and download music rather than buy it in physical form, young adults still like brick- and-mortar shopping. “They still like the social and recreational aspect,” Campbell notes. “They’re eating in the mall food courts.”

Tapped into the younger market as the chain may be, Tree of Life has still had to stay on its toes. For example, the music sales that once used to account for a lot of business have all but dried up. The company is always looking to reinvent itself: in the fall it will experiment with self-publishing, working with college faculty and publishers to combine selected course readings from different textbooks in one omnibus volume.

It’s part of Campbell’s “David” mindset, looking to see how he can leverage his small- stones assets against the giant competition. Take Amazon: the online megabusiness may have cheaper prices and one- or two-day delivery, “but I have the book in stock today; how can I leverage that, something that Amazon can’t provide,” Campbell asks.

Tree of Life has gone head-to-head with online orders. The company developed its own software that updates textbook prices daily based on demand and delivers required reading materials direct to students’ rooms, so the product is waiting on their desks when they arrive on campus.

“What I learned is that the secret to retail is not what you sell something for,” Campbell says. “The market is going to determine the selling price. If we’re going to survive, it’s in what we buy something for, so sourcing inventory is where you’re going to determine whether you make a margin or not.”

Making Mistakes

Campbell tries new things regularly on the basis that “God loves me and has put me in this position,” and that there’s enough business to go around. Not everything works; an off-campus store selling collegiate lines over a Christmas season broke even but wasn’t the success he had hoped.

But he keeps experimenting from the viewpoint of abundance, not scarcity.

“The biggest mistake we can make is being afraid to make mistakes. In our industry right now so many things are bad that a lot of folks are paranoid to try anything. They’re just paralyzed by fear, and we really need to risk, not to batten down the hatches, because it isn’t working,” he says.

Stores wanting to reach Millennials might start by hiring one or asking them to be a guide to their generation, Campbell suggests. But he cautions against “telling them why their worship style is wrong or why the translation of the Bible they read isn’t the right one. Shut up and listen so that you can understand them. At least you can understand their thinking, so you can know how to minister to them.”

Campbell acknowledges that there’s something of a cultural divide between his clientele and that of a typical Christian retail store. “The more I lean toward young people, the more I seem to put off their grandparents.”

But that generational gap does not have to be a given. “The people who are reaching this generation are in relationship with them,” he says. “Good retail is a relationship. The young church is thriving, and there are a lot of young people hungry for spiritual mothers and fathers, for mentors.”

-Andy Butcher