Build a powerful gift strategy through merchandising and trend-tracking.

Gift and specialty products are helping retailers define their customers and create memorable store experiences that keep them coming back.

It’s true gifts remain immune to online shopping to a good degree. The need for shoppers to see, touch, and even smell gift items creates a unique bubble for brick-and-mortar retail, observes Peter Dunn, founder of leading gift supplier P. Graham Dunn.

Building a powerful gift strategy involves merchandising and creating a store experience along with keeping abreast of larger product and consumer trends.

A high percentage of purchases in Christian stores are by shoppers getting something for someone else, whether gifts, books, or media. Genesis Marketing Group’s Chuck Zimmerman, who reps many of the industry’s leading gift companies, says “Most customers needing to purchase a gift have no idea what will fit that need, so they come to Christian bookstores to search.”

And, as New Mexico retailer Mike Huffstuttler notes, people often buy for birthdays and other events at the last minute, another reason for in-store rather than online buying.

It’s why Lori Bowdoin continues to see strong sales in gifts at Blessings, A Christian Store in Prattville, Alabama, and Sue Smith, store manager for Baker Book Store in Grand Rapids, Michigan, notes it’s a growing category. She cites several reasons, among them a big improvement in gift quality and an influx of former Family Christian Stores shoppers looking for things the defunct chain used to carry.

But there is more competition. Other general-market gift outlets have discovered the faith-based market and started carrying inspirational materials. As a result, Christian stores must pay attention because long-term gift trends morph rather than abruptly change and fads come and go—so being on the wrong end of a fashion curve can make the whole store feel outdated.

Tracking trends

Understanding the timing and lifespan of a buzz theme is challenging but critical, agrees Zimmerman. “You don’t want to be caught with a wall full of product that your customers have loved, purchased, but have grown tired of seeing,” he comments, noting that the chalkboard look has had a good run “but most stores have moved away from it.”

More generally, Dunn believes “the fruit has died on the vine” for collectibles, long a staple of many Christian stores. Lines like Willow Tree that keep selling year in and year out with a few tweaks are few and far between.

Attending gift shows and reading trade publications are good ways to keep up with gift market trends, as is following social media. Kelly Flores, bookstore manager at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, tracks suppliers on Instagram both “to get great ideas on merchandising and also see what’s trendy.”

Given the way many millennials have sniffed at much of the Christian culture appreciated by their parents, some stores have all but given up on the idea of trying to interest them in gifts. Not so fast, says Carpentree Marketing Manager Sherry Morris.

Personalization enables stores like The Bookery Parable Christian Store in Mansfield, Ohio to compete with Etsy and Amazon by making gifts personally meaningful.

“They aren’t into bits and bobs and mishmash,” she concedes but argues they haven’t rejected everything faith-based. “If you look on Pinterest and Instagram, they’re posting Scripture,” she says. “They want messaged things that are personally meaningful to them.”

This provides an opportunity for stores that offer personalization options. Personalization enables stores to compete with Etsy and Amazon, “but customers don’t have to wait for shipping,” points out Integra Interactive’s Michelle Amster. Blessings’s Bowdoin adds, “Anything that can be personalized does well.”

Personalization isn’t just about stamping a name on something someone buys—it can also mean making an impression on the shoppers themselves. “‘Shoppertainment’ is giving the customer experiences and reasons to come into the store,” says Morris. That could be anything from “a boutique to meander to an event to bring the family to, or a DIY class or a community cause to support.”

Faith focus

Stores differ when it comes to whether gifts must have explicit faith elements. At the Chapel Store at Calvary Chapel in Downey, California, manager Chris Craft feels a strong conviction to resist selling secular products, sticking with overtly Christian product. So does Huffstuttler: “Everything we carry must have Scripture or a religious symbol.”

Zimmerman points out, though, that strong demand for Scripture-based gifts doesn’t just come from the Christian market. “There are a number of communities that at one time had a Christian bookstore which has closed,” he says, “and there’s still a demand in that community for that product.” Meanwhile, Lorraine Valk has found general market items doing well at her Parable Christian Store in St. Joseph, Michigan, including clothing from Noelle and scarves from DM Merchandising. “Christian ladies purchase these things elsewhere,” she says, “why not from us?”

Bowdoin also sells general market items, “though we always try to have an inspirational or charitable tie-in.”

The majority of shoppers at Promises His Coffee & Cottage Shoppe in rural Malta, Montana, owned for 25 years by former CBA board member Danni Schneidt-Hill, were unchurched, so her philosophy was that “not every product had to have a Jesus label on it, but rather a Jesus testimony behind it.” The gifts were selected as “an unintimidating, loving way to share God’s message and love.”

Uniqueness isn’t the only criteria for a good gift department, says Hill: Quality is very important, too, such as “garden flags that are guaranteed not to tear in the rural winds.”

Merchandising musts

Selecting the right product for the gift department is only half the battle. No matter how good, they won’t sell well if not showcased properly.

“Make sure you test a product’s viability by bringing in enough to make a statement,” advises Amster. “If you only bring in a couple of pieces of a new item and it gets lost in the sea of products, you can’t really say it didn’t work because you didn’t give it a fair chance. You have to make it stand out so shoppers can see it.”

That belief drove merchandising at Promises where Hill recalls “we literally moved every item at least quarterly,” so that shoppers always saw something new when they came in. Christmas prep started on Labor Day, finished by Nov. 1 in time for the season.

When there wasn’t a big calendar event on which she could hang a display, she’d root out fun ones, like National Wear Your Slippers to Work Day. “If a display tells its own story, it’s much more likely to grab someone’s attention,” she says.

Grouping gifts by sections, such as wedding, baby, pastor, and bereavement, is advantageous, as demonstrated by Logos Christian Bookstore in Alexandria, Kentucky.

Dunn recommends creating one’s own displays with folding tables and throw blankets, or “whatever stuff you have in the attic,” to separate yourself from other stores. Having too many floor POP displays is “ugly and distracting,” he believes, and “a prop for lazy retailers.”

Recognizing the heightened importance of good merchandising, CBA is working to help stores improve in this area at UNITE 2018, the association’s international convention in Nashville, July 8-11.

Gifts Ignited will be a featured area where retailers and suppliers will be working together not just to showcase new and hot products, but also to demonstrate how they can best be presented in-store, with live demonstrations of lifestyle and cross-merchandising.

By way of example, Eric Grimm, CBA’s director of communications, who’s coordinating Gifts Ignited, cites Hill’s store. When a lifestyle display featuring a bath and personal care products also showcased some Christian fiction that could be read while soaking in the tub, sales in that previously slow book category shot up.

“Whom you are trying to reach will dictate what your displays will look like,” Grimm says. “You’re not just trying to connect with customers—you’re trying to solve problems and help them accomplish what they’re trying to do. Present products in such a way it’s easy for a young mother to see how they help her children grow in faith or to satisfy a hope that a grandmother has for her family. Physical-store retailing today is about helping your customers achieve their aspirations, not just about transactions.”

Superior service

Though gift sales have not been lost to the internet in the same way as books and music, they’re not entirely protected as online sellers up their game. Brick-and-mortar retailers need to be alert, says Stephanie Flinn, Dicksons product development and marketing VP. “A high level of ease and speed of purchase in the stores encourages shoppers to come back” and offsets online convenience.

That also opens the way for small add-ons at checkout, maybe greeting cards and even a gift-wrapping service—in-person extras not as easily found online.

Craft has found grouping gifts by sections, such as wedding, baby, pastor, and bereavement, is advantageous. This last category is one to watch, says Zimmerman. “It has been growing and continues to grow. People don’t want to spend $80 to $100 on flowers that will sit out by the trash in two days. Now they can give a gift to the family that has special meaning and can be around and appreciated for years.”

At Believer’s Christian Gifts in Rio Rancho, Huffstuttler has found first-responder and military lines to be very strong categories.

Getting the right balance of inventory is more challenging than ever, so what makes for a good gift buyer? Amster suggests someone who chooses 25 percent of what they’d like for their home, 50 percent of what they appreciate but wouldn’t choose personally or maybe even give to someone else, and 25 percent of what makes them think, “Who in their right mind would buy this?”

For Dunn, a good buyer decides what’s trending and then zeroes in on new suppliers who are hitting it best, rather than spreading themselves across too many. “A good buyer recognizes that home decor and accessories, along with various impulse tchotchkes, is what constitutes the bulk of the gift market,” he says.

That’s the experience of Huffstuttler, whose store has a strong gift emphasis and a focus on impulse buys under $10. “Low-price, unique items,” he says, citing Swanson’s penny crosses and salvation cards as examples. “We package these and place them by the front register for 79 cents and they go very well.”

—Andy Butcher