Promotions and special events can help get people into your store, but that’s just the start. Now you have to keep them coming back. But how do you develop repeat business when shoppers have so many other options out there?
We went to the people that know―asking loyal customers at stores across the country why they keep returning to their local Christian retailer. There may be no shattering surprises in their answers, no magic bullet, but what they shared should encourage you to keep focusing on the basics.
While technology continues to change some of the ways consumers buy, it cannot replace the essentials of good product selection, great customer service, and a strong ministry emphasis. As you read this round-up of customer feedback, consider how you may build on their insights at your store.
Don’t underestimate the appeal of being a homegrown business. Amazon may be the name on everyone’s lips, but there is growing groundswell of appreciation by people for keeping the money they spend in their local community.
“You can buy things online, but why when I can stop in our bookstore?” said Fred Kelley, a regular at Sylvia Robinson’s My Time Christian Bookstore in Monroeville, Alabama. “Small business is far better than the disconnected online outlets,” said Scott Plummer, who shops at The Scroll in Tyler, Texas, managed by David Rooker. “I do not see the benefit of buying from big box stores that only sell it because it’s popular, when they may even be anti-Christian.”
Lisa Steffen visits family-run Dightman’s Bible Book Center in Tacoma, Washington, “because I like to support my local bookstore so it will stay in business.” For Mitzi Ibarra, who shops at Danny Vera’s Christ Centered Life Store in Fort Myers, Florida: “I would much rather support a local merchant than a big retail store.”
Lainy Buffington supports Central Christian College Bookstore, managed by Kelly Harding in Moberly, Missouri, because “I like dealing locally with friends I have come to know and trust.” Additionally, “my purchases help keep them in business.”
Melanie Thurnau likes to shop there, too, but not just to buy local. “Often I need things the next day, and don’t have time to wait on shipping.”
Melissa Gustafson loves to shop at Living Room Christian Books & Gifts in Bastrop, Texas, owned by Bill Sharp and his daughter, Kim Burns, to support “family owned, Christian businesses. While the big box stores may have more product, they just don’t have the personalized service that smaller, local businesses have.”
There may be lots of choice online, but it’s not presented in as clear and orderly a way as in many brick-and-mortar stores. You usually need to have more of an idea of what you are looking for online, or be prepared to spend a lot of time hunting.
“It is well organized and has a wonderful selection of books, cards, gifts, bulletin resources, gifts, and various materials needed in our church ministry,” said Phyllis Bell of My Time Christian Book Store. “It is a delight to shop,” said Fred Kelley, “you never know what new you might find.”
The store is “always so well stocked and always seems to have just what we are looking for and even unusual things that others don’t carry,” added Pauline McGowin, who drives more than 100 miles to the store. “Selection, quality, and affordability” are the drivers for customer Barbara Sheffield.
“Their selection is wonderful, and their helpfulness in finding items for me makes shopping so easy,” said Frieda Mundine of Living Room Christian Books & Gifts. “They keep a great selection of items for every occasion you could imagine, and they update inventory consistently, so even going twice a week I still find myself regularly seeing new items.”
For Beverly Holder, one of the draws of Central Christian College Bookstore is “the huge variety.”
With their typically limited space and wide range of products, Christian stores face a challenge in not looking too busy or cluttered, but it makes all the difference.
Watermark Christian Store, on the campus of Calvary Chapel Melbourne in Melbourne Florida, has “a beautiful open look and feel,” according to Steve Slesinger.
Fred Kelley thinks that My Time Christian Bookstore is “very nicely laid out,” while Pauline McGowin noted the “attractive displays” that are changed frequently. Central Christian College Bookstore is “well lit, colorful, and pleasing to the eye,” said Beverly Holder. “Lots of color.” The arrangement of the shelves and inventory was attractive, too, she added.
This is not as easy to measure as the room temperature, but it is a vital factor in making a store appealing. Christ Centered Life Store is “peaceful, friendly,” said Mitzi Ibarra, while Lisa Steffen appreciates “the overall feeling of being in” Dightman’s Bible Book Center.
Jacqueline Lee said “I love the atmosphere and the welcome feeling of love that I receive when I visit” My Time Christian Book Store, while when she is there Gerrie McMillan appreciates “the feeling of God’s presence.”
For regular Pauline McGowin, “there is a totally different atmosphere compared to others. It seems to have such a warmth when you walk in that makes you feel comfortable… It seems to have an anointing on it that just draws you to it.” The welcome feeling “makes us inclined to stay longer, which ends up in added purchases.”
Frieda Mundine finds “the same peace I feel when I walk into my home” when she goes to Living Room Christian Books & Gifts. On tough days, “I can walk into the store and spend time looking around at all the scriptures on various products or just sit in the Bible section and pray for a bit.”
If any retailers should excel at going the second mile, it’s Christian store owners and managers, and doing so is perhaps the single biggest way they can make an indelible impression.
“The staff is great,” said Michelle “Peach” Roberts of Watermark Christian Store, “They care and learn things about you such as what you like to read and don’t, and let you know if anything comes in they think you would like. They are always willing to listen.”
My Time Christian Book Store’s “one on one care” is unparalleled, according to Jacqueline Lee. “I always hear something of God,” she said. “The other day the owner was educating a customer on the different types of versions of Bibles, and she was teaching how to read and understand the Bible.”
Sylvia Robinson and her staff “go above and beyond on their customer service,” said Phyllis Bell, such as staying after closing hours to help a customer with bulletins needed for a homecoming service.
“More than once I’ve told staff what type of book I’m looking for and about the person it’s for and they have been able to find just the right book, card, or gift,” said Kathy Cleveland of Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, managed by CBA chair Sue Smith. “I’m always greeted warmly and offered help. It’s the kind of help that says, I care about what is important to you right now, what brought you into the store?”
She has often left the store with “the excitement of ‘I found just what I was looking for’. This definitely does not happen online.”
And then there are times when customer service becomes customer care.
“I feel they don’t want to just sell me product but are truly interested in me as a person and a fellow believer, and are always willing to help me with any questions I might have,” said Steve Phillips of Baker Book House, to which he drives from Kalamazoo.
“They have taken the time to take a prayer request and even pray with or for me in different situations in my life,” he added. “This is something you can’t put a price tag on, and is something precious that words cannot express.”
With a son largely housebound or in the hospital because of health problems, Frieda Mundine became a regular visitor to Living Room Christian Books & Gifts, where “our extended family,” as she views them, “is praying with is through every battle he has faced. When surgeries hit unexpected difficulties, I find comfort knowing I can call the store and prayers will immediately be covering my son and his team of doctors.”
Customers “feel welcome” at Central Christian College Bookstore, said Beverly Holder. “The staff are very well trained at their jobs, they are pleasant and strive for the satisfaction and happiness of the customer, They cheerfully help you find what you need… The store is a ‘happy’ place and I love going there.”
Lainy Buffington agreed. “They are always so kind and willing to help me find what I am looking for, or order it for me,” she said. “I am very blessed by their service.”
The loyal shoppers we heard from also liked the fact that their spending supported other ministry efforts in the local community, as their stores get behind other organizations and outreaches.
At My Time Christian Bookstore, Sylvia Robinson embosses the names of graduates from a Mobile rehab center on copies of Jesus Calling, for Fred Kelley to distribute. “It is quite an outreach,” he said. “All the students ask me how to get one, and I tell them it’s easy: just stay here, learn and graduate, and it’s yours free.”
In addition to the personal support she gets from Living Room Bookstore, Frieda Mundine appreciates the store’s promotion of Compassion International. After seeing details of the organization’s sponsorship program in the store, her son adopted “a little brother” in Rwanda.
Melissa Gustafson said that the store is “always looking for ways to reach out to our community,” including diaper drives for a local pregnancy resource center, and partnering with churches to bring inspirational movies to the local theater.
The live discussions and author presentations at Baker Book House, sometimes on controversial topics like same-sex attraction, have been “great bridge-builders to the community, and for me personally an avenue through which I can help others to grow in their faith walk,” said Kathy Cleveland.
Having asked these consumers what they liked about their local Christian stores, we closed by asking them what the businesses might do to further improve.
Steve Slesinger: “Have guest speakers with interesting topics. A newsletter with interesting book reviews.”
Kathy Cleveland: “Have longer hours for the coffee shop; it closes relatively early in comparison to the store.”
Gerrie McMillan: “Continue to be God’s voice and share.”
Melanie Thurnau: “Look at a plan for deliveries, via onsite staff, out to surrounding churches.”
Merry Trueblood, a regular at Dightman’s Bible Book Center: “Nothing. It’s perfect!”