America’s many “Chreasters” who turn up at church only for the two high points of the Christian calendar—Christmas and Easter—are not just a mission field for ministers; they’re also a significant potential revenue stream for retailers.

Together with those who used to attend church but have dropped off the rolls and those who’ve never gone but are open to exploring faith—with online searches for “church” actually higher at Easter than any other time of year—they comprise a large fringe group for churches and stores alike.

Christmas may be Christian stores’ major income-generating season, but second-placed Easter could provide more of an opportunity to reach beyond their core constituency.

“For people who just see [Easter] as a ‘religious holiday,’ well guess what? You’re a religious store,” says Erik Ernstrom, manager of business intelligence for The Parable Group. “You have an opportunity to reach out.”

According to the National Retail Federation, American consumers spend almost $3 billion on gifts and around $2.5 billion on candy at Easter, while the Faith Driven Consumer (FDC) network estimates that committed Christian shoppers account for around $6 billion of the total Easter spending, which also includes food, clothing, and flowers.

That’s a lot of money being spent, with many customers looking for faith-related items of some kind. “We’re the only store that sells religious items in our area,” says Peggy Knudsen, manager of Christian Book and Gift Shoppe in West Burlington, Iowa. “We do a lot of advertising now on Facebook and social media to increase traffic and be that destination store.”

Another reason stores should spend some time planning well for next Easter: It will be the first one without Family Christian Stores’ 240-odd locations, points out Rachel Savage, director of bookstore operations at Calvary Chapel Melbourne in Melbourne, Florida, home to Watermark Christian Store.

Target fallout

FDC founder Chris Stone points to a another factor that he believes heightens the opportunity for savvy Christian stores: the increasing antipathy shown toward Christians by some big businesses. He cites Target’s gender-neutral bathroom stance, which saw many Christians taking their business elsewhere, as an example.

“If [Christian stores] can become relevant, if they can be competitive from a selection and convenience and quality and price standpoint, there’s an opportunity, because the other companies are doing it poorly,” he says.

However, Christian stores won’t get more business without some effort. For the majority of Christians, “I’m not going to buy from you [just] because you’re Christian,” Stone notes. “I’m going to buy from you because you have the product I need at the price I need, the quality I need and the convenience I need—and the breaker is you’re Christian,” he says. “That’s not the way it should be, but that’s the way it is.”

Most churches see their highest attendance of the year at Easter, and they’re looking for creative ways to draw the nominal or usually not interested like helicopter Easter egg drops and free Easter photo sessions. Edgier efforts have included a new car giveaway draw and a $1 donation to charity for every attendee.

Special events like an Easter egg hunt and kids activities haven’t proven to be especially effective at Christian Book and Gift, says Knudsen. One hit, though, was hiding eggs with coupons for 10 to 15 percent off around the store.

Savage is planning something similar at Watermark next spring. “We’re going to hide some plastic Easter eggs around the store,” she says. “Each egg will have a coupon for a discount, a free DVD of the service, or a giveaway item.”

Catalogs are key

Catalogs are the best way to get people into the store at Easter, says Ernstrom. But don’t just send them to your best customers, who are likely to come anyway.

“Easter is a time when you need to go deeper on your list and not just mail to that top 20 percent,” he says, advocating sending copies to shoppers who may have visited only at Christmas or Easter and once more be thinking about “religious shopping.”

“There’s no better way to tell your customers about the new stuff that’s coming out,” Ernstrom says. Send emails by all means but don’t think just because it’s much cheaper it’s more effective. A high email open rate of 20 percent would see 500 people in a 2,500 list actually look at an email, which might feature four or five products at best.

Contrast that, he says, with a mailing of 5,000 or more catalogs with 24 pages of product. “You have to be mailing physical catalogs,” he says, “and if you’re not, you’re going to be left behind.”

Smart stores will look to connect with local churches to see how they might support outreach efforts, maybe by supplying giveaway resources. Knudsen says that while their store sees some new shopper business at Easter, “most of it comes from churches getting supplies as attendance is up around that time of year.”

Stores also need to have an eye on the movie theaters, which might feature religious movies and not just those by faith-based studios.

“With millions of theatergoers seeing these films and having conversations around them, it’s the perfect time to invite people in to learn more at church and to explore the deeper meanings of the films’ messages,” says Jamie Stahler, VP of sales and partnerships at Outreach, Inc.

Due out just before Easter next year is I Can Only Imagine, the much-anticipated movie based on the real-life story behind Bart Millard’s hit MercyMe song of the same name. Made by Christian filmmaker brothers John and Andrew Erwin (Moms Night Out, Woodlawn), it stars Dennis Quaid and is being distributed by Lionsgate and Roadside Attraction, who brought The Shack to theaters this year.

Outreach support

Outreach, Inc., has helped thousands of churches with their Easter outreach efforts and has plans for a new initiative in 2018 that will provide the resources needed for hosting special Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday services.

“We’ve found that an increasing number of churches are now holding services for all three of these important observances,” says Stahler, “so we want to provide a turnkey church kit and a gift book option to make the season one that visitors and members will look forward to attending.”

The church kits and books should be available to ship mid-January, “so it would be great to have them available in stores around that time so customers can see the resources and have time to plan ahead for what will be an unforgettable campaign,” Stahler adds.

The potential Easter store influx requires a keen eye on inventory. Like many others, Parable stores focus on outreach-type products like apologetic and resources about the person of Christ—the kind of items that regular shoppers might buy to give away. Some stores merchandise items like devotionals and kids’ Bibles specifically for inclusion in an Easter basket, or put together a basket of their own.

“Being a church store, we’ll have a large number of new visitors over Easter weekend during our services,” says Savage at Watermark. “Many of them will either rededicate their lives to the Lord that weekend or make a new commitment to become a follower of Christ. We often see many people shopping for Bibles and books to help them understand the Christian walk.”

Ernstrom suggests stores look back on last year’s Easter sales to get a handle on what went well. “You can remember a lot of stuff, but not everything,” he says. “Recall is not 100 percent, so having the actual data works really well.” He calls it “looking forward by looking back.”

Read more about planning an Easter season retention strategy for ongoing store growth at cbaonline.org/EasterRetention.

See how The Magellan Project is engaging people with the Bible in new ways at cbaonline.org/MagellanProject.

—Andy Butcher