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If the Family Christian Stores closure is a window of opportunity, it’s one that will be closing soon as indie stores figure out how to apply their limited resources in the right areas to fill the void. With reduced staffing giving store owners and managers more to do than ever, successful planning can be overwhelming. But, according to New Day Christian Distributors VP Ed Leonard, “there are certain core things you just have to do.”

One of those, suggests Dave Lewis, executive VP of sales and marketing at Baker Publishing Group (BPG), is to take some time to think about tomorrow. While acknowledging that many indie stores are a bit overwhelmed, he believes that some longer-range planning is critical if stores are going to thrive and not just survive.

Forward-looking also means being sure to have new inventory always coming in, so that “every time somebody comes in they are going to see something different,” adds Leonard. “Something that is going to catch their eye—even if it is something they don’t want at that moment; they get the feeling that if they don’t come in fairly regularly they are going to miss something.”

Another must, Leonard maintains, is marketing. “If you aren’t letting people know about what you have, what difference does it make?” He also notes that “Jesus didn’t have all this knowledge and love in his heart and just sit around … he had to get his message out.”

Danni Schneidt-Hill echoes that sentiment while challenging the “Christian poverty mentality” she sees in some places, what she calls the “poor me, I’m a Christian, come shop with me, support me just because you should….blah, blah, blah.”

The former CBA board member and owner of Promises “His” Coffee and Cottage Shoppe in Malta, Montana, is adamant that “in this day and age you have to be about building the kingdom—building relationships both on the consumer and vendor/supplier side” and reflecting faith and confidence.

“Jesus was thrown out of his own hometown, over a cliff, and did that stop Him?” she adds. “Heavens no, He moved his ministry headquarters to Capernaum and thrived from there to those who wanted to build a relationship with Him. He didn’t quit, give up or close His doors…He built relationships with those who truly wanted them.”

One way to connect more with customers is through in-store events. CBA board member and owner of The Greatest Gift & Scripture Supply Store in Pueblo, Colorado Heather Trost has been “doing a lot more and sending fewer coupons.” She says, “Even more than a coupon, people want to be engaged with their local store.”

Worth bearing in mind is that being more outgoing won’t just tap into one-time Family shoppers. As Kirk Blank, president of The Munce Group, notes, “There are thousands of others in the community who have yet to discover their local store.”

Broadening Scope

Another critical shift for independents that want to help fill the Family vacuum is in breadth, suggests Jeff Crosby, publisher at IVP. With Family’s focus on best-sellers and what he calls “celebrity publishing,” he has seen minimal impact on his own company and its generally more studious titles.

But the successful Christian indie must service “a breadth of church traditions,” he believes, “creating an environment where people all along a spectrum of Christian faith traditions can sense, ‘Ah, you get me, you see me, you know I am here and have something for me.’”

Some Munce stores have been expanding different categories to meet the void left by local Family closings. “The beauty of a locally owned independent is that they know their market better than anyone and can work to meet the customer’s needs and expectations,” says Blank.

But the question of inventory is also part of a fundamental Christian retail issue that goes beyond life after Family—what industry veteran and CLC USA National Director and Publisher David Almack calls “the next generation” question. He fears that many millennials have dismissed Christian retail because it too much reflects a Christian subculture they reject as inauthentic and derivative.

“If we don’t take that seriously,” he suggests, “that is the death knell for us.”

Crosby also sees a shift across generational lines—“a desire that many have to set aside the celebrity and the fad and think more deeply, more broadly, more carefully about matters of faith and cultural engagement and church leadership and what it means to life faithfully in the world that is becoming more globalized and, paradoxically, fragmented with every passing year.”

There are long-term supply-chain issues that still need addressing, too. “If there was some sort of uniform way of doing returns, handling defectives, and shipping errors, it would be a huge time saver for both sides,” offers Lorraine Valk, owner of Parable Christian Store of St. Joseph in St. Joseph, Michigan.

Crosby sees distributors becoming more important as stores rely more on just-in-time ordering to enable them to experiment with inventory and get titles from multiple publishers in one box. “But if that’s going to work, publishers and wholesalers will need to work together to ensure that the supply chain has ready access to the titles,” he says.

Noting that what most vendors liked about selling to Family was that it meant a large order and “pretty much almost guaranteed placement into stores,” Anchor Distributors VP John Whitaker adds that in the chain’s absence, “I think that it’s time for that model to be available to the indies in some form of buying group. I would like to get that kind of program up and running but the stores would need to commit to certain quantities to be a part of the special buy.”

—Andy Butcher

Read more at Is it Time for an Indie Store Renaissance?