Conference center store makes lasting impact in visitors’ lives.
When it comes to retail traffic, numbers alone aren’t enough. A lot of people visit the Grand Canyon each year, but you’re not going to sell many beach umbrellas there. The sweet spot is a high volume of visitors and high interest in what you have to offer.
By that token, the bookstore at Mount Hermon Christian Camps & Conference Center may be the envy of many in Christian retail—some 60,000 people passing near the front door each year, most of them eager to feed their faith.
Nestled among the famous redwoods of the Santa Cruz mountains in California, the center has existed to “proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior, teach the authoritative Word of God, and serve His church in our nation and throughout the world” since 1906. Thousands trace some of the most formative times of their spiritual lives to conferences and events held there, some down through multiple generations of families.
Arriving to participate in one of the many different events—from summer youth camps to marriage conferences and choir sings—people are often looking for additional resources. As a result, the store enjoys a healthy per-shopper average ticket. Plus, many visitors come from places where they don’t have a Christian store nearby.
“They’re so happy to be able to come into the store and actually touch the books and look,” says manager Laura Sampson. “You can see what a blessing that is to them and how much an item means to them personally, whether it’s a book, a Bible, a gift item, or a Mount Hermon-branded item.”
In fact, it’s not unusual for people to stock up on books for their family for the whole year, Sampson says. Some of these annual shoppers will then call throughout the rest of the year when they’re looking for other books; though the store doesn’t do online sales, it will ship to people’s homes.
“There will be a small number of people who will want to get the book from Amazon, but for the most part, people like the ease of ordering with us,” says Sampson. “We make a smaller amount on these items, but it’s not a lost sale, and it’s been a great way to serve our customers.”
LESS IS MORE
Having said all that, book selling still isn’t easy for Sampson and her six part-time staff, who are augmented by two camp volunteers that help run the center during the busy summer season. That’s when up to 800 people a week may be on site.
In addition to a core inventory of carefully selected titles, the team has to keep on top of scheduled events to order in relevant titles, which feature in a special display in the store.
“We work with the speakers, if they have any books or want to recommend some,” says Sampson. “We may order 50 of a title,” with unsold copies being returned if possible, or discounted.
One exception to this approach is the popular annual Mount Hermon Christian Writers conference, which often draws well-known authors as part of the faculty (this year’s keynoter, Liz Curtis Higgs). With lots of speakers’ books and instructional titles on offer, the conference organizers run their own bookstore and set up in a separate classroom because of the amount of space needed.
Mount Hermon Bookshop also draws local customers—the nearest other Christian store is about 30 miles away—who get to take advantage of a frequent buyer program (a $10-off coupon after spending $100). Local pastors and military personnel get a discount, while church- and ministry-related orders of 15 or more titles earn 30 percent off. For shoppers from a distance who make big purchases on their irregular visits, staff members are encouraged to offer an extra discount as a token of appreciation,
With an emphasis on providing resources that help build people up in their faith, it seems almost counter-intuitive to reduce inventory, but that’s what the store did a couple of years ago. Taking out some of the spinners and shelves opened up the space to make it feel more inviting.
Staff dragged their feet a bit at the idea to start with, Sampson admits. But, she realized, “a lot of those books weren’t selling anyway; they were just sitting there.” Creating more space and giving the store a general makeover—a more rustic feel in keeping with its environment, with the walls lined with wood recycled from old cabins—has encouraged people to linger more.
“The store is much more open and relaxed I would say,” Sampson observes. “Years ago I remember you couldn’t fit a stroller through some of the aisles. It was bookshelves wall to wall that were stuffed. Now there’s more breathing room.”
Softer lighting and vinyl floors that aren’t as noisy as the old wooden ones also help create “a warm and inviting space,” Sampson feels, “where people feel comfortable just hanging out or talking, browsing without feeling hurried or pressured.”
One might not expect Bibles to be a big seller; after all, most people will bring their own to a conference center, right? Actually, it’s surprising how many folk forget theirs, Sampson says, while a good number also want to buy one while there to give to someone else.
MORE THAN BOOKS
Given the significant place Mount Hermon has in many visitors’ faith journey, it’s not surprising that items that help commemorate their time there are popular. Mount Hermon-branded items account for almost a third of revenues, from $19.95 ceramic mugs to stylish $39.99 hoodies, designed by the center’s creative team.
These lines variously feature Mount Hermon’s tree circle logo or its Live the Adventure tagline. There are also outdoors-related items like flashlights and a $69.99 backpack, plus Redwood Canopy Tours styles and accessories from the center’s zipline course, which is used for team-building by outside groups, including corporate clients like Google and Facebook. Other day visitors also use the center, part of the reason for the few local-interest and history titles that are the only non-Christian books available.
Gift and apparel revenues are important, helping with Mount Hermon’s ministry operating costs, but Sampson keeps more than just the bottom line in mind. “We could charge $60 for a nice hoodie because the competition is,” she says, “but we work to keep the costs down for our guests, especially on our own branded merch, while not sacrificing quality.”
The rest of the business breaks down to books and Bibles 34 percent; gifts 18 percent—with P. Graham Dunn product fitting well; stationery 15 percent—journals sell well, of course, with so many note-takers around—and then jewelry, a small amount of music, and miscellaneous.
The 2,000 square foot bookshop is centrally located in Mount Hermon’s “downtown,” near the offices, in a building that hosts a separately run coffee bar above. There’s a small separate store at the youth camp, and one that runs just in the summer at the elementary kids camp, both carrying the branded lines.
Sampson has been with the bookstore for 10 years, managing operations since 2011. Having worked at the conference center as a high schooler and student, and met her husband there, she has personal knowledge of how special Mount Hermon is to many people.
“It’s such a beautiful place to work, and I feel super blessed to get to be working with such amazing people and be a part of so many people drawing closer to God through our programs or guest groups we serve,” she says. “It’s awesome to get to see the life change that happens, seeing how special Mount Hermon is to our guests, their families, and the impact their time here has had on their faith.”