Targeted groups and online service drive 20-year store strategy.

The Gundersens define their niche as “helping a family build a strong, quality library with exceptional reading for their children.”

Local newspaper Tulsa World got it right in describing Grace & Truth Books as a “hidden gem.” On a typical day only a couple of customers will find their way to the 3,000-square-foot bookstore tucked away in a residential part of Sand Springs, Oklahoma.

Given the lack of traffic, Dennis and Naomi Gundersen’s business wouldn’t seem to have much to offer by way of example to other Christian retailers, but in a closer look it serves as something of a model for how to thrive in a niche.

For the Gundersens, that’s mostly the Reformed and homeschool communities largely looking for classic titles rather than the latest best-seller. Over the past 20-plus years, they’ve established a reputation as a go-to source by really knowing their constituency and products, then offering great customer service.

Though they’re happy enough to welcome shoppers who do find them—including out-of-state customers who stop in when passing by—for the Gundersens, their location is really more of a warehouse than a bookstore. “It’s like shopping at Sam’s Club,” says Dennis of the bare bones shelving.

Around 60 percent of sales are online, with most of the rest—other than for the dribble of visitors—split between conventions and conferences, and other Christian stores around the country. Grace & Truth has more than 200 Christian accounts, including Christian Book Distributors and Mardel Christian and Education, as well as independents.

ONLINE SERVICE

Family-run for many years—with their four sons all involved in different aspects at one time—Grace & Truth is now staffed by the Gundersens and two other employees. Between them they handle the 20-plus orders that come in each day through the store’s online store. Most are processed the same day.

If a title isn’t readily available for some reason, one of the team will contact the customer right away by phone or email and explain. “We’ll tell them there’s going to be a slight delay and ask if they’d like us to ship the other five titles we do have right away, or ship them all together when the other one arrives,” he says.

That kind of service has earned a string of five-star reviews at the store’s Facebook page. “It’s very common for people to order some books from a Christian bookstore and they get a slip of paper in the mail saying this one or that one is backordered,” Dennis notes. “We like to handle that [situation] in a personal way.”

The store offers free shipping on orders over $49—they’ve found that oftentimes people who planned to buy maybe only one or two titles boost their total purchase to take advantage of the offer. “If they ordered three books and we made a profit on all of them, the fourth book gets them free shipping and so we break even on that one.”

When orders are shipped out, someone will usually tuck in a leaflet about a conference or event that might be of interest, or a printed card promoting another title similar to the one ordered—their hard-copy version of Amazon’s “you may also like” feature. While most customers prefer print editions, Grace & Truth does offer around 40 of its titles as e-books, which bring in “a few hundred dollars a month.”

With so much business coming online, the Gundersens pay close attention to their store’s presence there. The website is clear and functional, if not flashy, and includes a “related resources” link from each book to other materials. On Facebook, the store belongs to groups related to homeschool and Reformed topics and the Gundersens ask permission to post about relevant books, from time to time.

—Andy Butcher

Read more about Grace & Truth’s social media and book tables strategies at Grace & Truth Meets Niche Needs – Part 2