It’s a long way to the ocean from Terre Haute, Indiana, but Ron Forster is guided by Christopher Columbus as he steers The Open Door through the choppy waters of Christian retailing.
A picture of a ship at sea hangs in his office, with a caption noting that the famed Italian explorer trusted God more than his navigational skills.
“That’s the way I’ve tried to go through this,” Forster says of the last 32 years in business, now as the sole-surviving independent Christian store in the area. “There has been a lot of change, a lot of it has been scary. I just trust that God is in it.”
As an example, he points to a counter-intuitive move in the store that has been significant in helping it adapt to shifts in the industry—the addition of a cafe. It wasn’t something he had in mind, having known of other stores to follow the coffee bar trend of the time only to fail.
“I’m in the Christian bookstore business,” he reasoned, “not the cafe business.”
But then, during improvement work at the store, he was approached by a couple interested in leasing space for a cafe at The Open Door. The move gave Forster all the potential advantages without the demands of directly running a very different kind of business.
Separated from the main store by a half wall, The Gingersnaps Cafe occupies around a tenth of the overall 7,000 square feet floor space, with a rear entry and drive-through window. The cafe area hosts informal Bible studies and business meetings.
Though such an addition wasn’t in his sights, Forster says, “I just felt like God was saying it was something we should do, so we did and it has been a real plus to our business.”
The cafe has drawn midday visitors who make up for much of the evening traffic—largely young people—that has dwindled since physical music sales started to drop. With fewer nighttime customers, the store has cut back on its later opening hours, though it still opens at 9 a.m. mostly to cater for morning coffee drinkers. Cafe customers “have to walk by our displays, [so] they get to see who we are and what we have,” Forster says. “It’s kept us as a viable place to go, and that has helped us tremendously.”
The decision to follow God’s nudge like that is actually enshrined in the store name: when the family-run business started, “we didn’t really know where we were going,” Forster recalls. “God just opened a door for us.”
Not being afraid to take risks has been part of The Open Door from the beginning. The store was founded by Ron’s mother-in-law, Doris Farmer, who began in a mall, one of only a few Christian stores to take on such a mainstream retail location.
“It gave us great credibility in the community,” says Forster, who worked at the store from the start with his wife, Diana; the pair took over the business in 1994. “We were more visible being in that location.”
Eight years on, The Open Door moved to its own building nearby, adding a further 2,000 square feet to it in 1998. Ten years later, an upgrade and remodel included welcoming Gingersnaps.
Moving from the mall meant no longer having to be open on a Sunday, which the family considered a plus, but it also required them to up their marketing efforts.
“We needed to keep in touch with our customers more often because people were using the mall quite regularly,” and by moving away they lost that frequent traffic.
The store has a regular ad in the church page of the local newspaper and sponsors local Christian radio but finds most success with catalogs. As a member of The Covenant Group, The Open Door sends out between six and eight catalogs a year, adjusting the size of each mailing.
“You target to your best customers,” Forster observes. “We usually send at least 3,000 at time, though at Christmas we could send as many as 7,000 or 8,000.”
In-store events are an important part of keeping the store’s profile high, “mostly with local artists and authors, because we’re kind of stuck out here in no-man’s land,” Forster says.
“It’s something for people to do on a Saturday, something different,” he adds. “We’re not trying to make big dollars on the event itself. It’s more about trying to get a good feeling in the community.”
The addition of a P. Graham Dunn laser center offering personalized gifts has also helped “create some excitement.” While music sales are down, they aren’t entirely out for the count. The category still makes up around 12 percent of business, which compares favorably to many other stores. Forster attributes that to the Midwest location: “Maybe our community has taken a little longer to get into the technical age.”
But another factor is that the store continues to present music as a lively department. With “pretty strong” sales in Southern Gospel and accompaniment tracks, The Open Door has two listening stations and can burn digital tracks.
Physical inventory is still important, too, he says. “We’ve tried not to downplay [music] but to enhance it, and that has helped … having interesting displays, keeping things on the wall and changing them, so that people are not always seeing the same thing, trying to create that ‘wow’ when they come in.”
With around 19 full- and part-time employees, “we’re probably a little overstaffed when we aren’t at a peak time, but it’s a good time to do all the straightening and cleaning and stickering of all the material that needs to be done, so it works out.”
Having frontliners on the floor is also part of a continued emphasis on good customer service. “We want someone to be available when people come in,” he says. “We try to make sure customers are greeted when they come in, not when they’re leaving. We want to give them a good experience at the cash register, so they know they’ve been appreciated and want to come back.”
As part of that package, the store still offers free gift-wrapping, an extra other stores have had to drop because of lack of manpower.
The Open Door began with a greater emphasis on gifts than other independents, and the category remains important. Though most inventory is from Christian suppliers, they’ve added some more general boutiquey items. Keeping a close eye on the category has been key.
“The pendulum swings,” Forster observes. “We’ll see big interest in jewelry for a while and then all of a sudden it will go back to pictures and plaques for the wall, and then to things like kitchenware. You have to watch the inventory levels in all those different departments carefully and make sure you are staying on top of the trends.”
From its earliest days, The Open Door promoted special ordering, a service it continues to emphasize. “If someone wants something and we don’t have it, our staff is trained to go on the internet and find it.”
Even though they can’t always compete with the promised delivery time of other vendors, many customers choose to give their business to The Open Door. “I guess it’s customer loyalty,” Forster says gratefully. “They’ve used us for years, and they just think of us first.”
That kind of support—earned through years of faithful service—helps Forster remain optimistic about Christian retail, despite all the challenges. He believes that there’s still a place for those who choose to stick to their course no matter the headwinds they face.
Walmart’s interest in Christian products has risen and fallen, he notes.
“They don’t get the sales they expect, and then they drop off,” he says. “It’s going to fall back on the local Christian retailer to make sure that those products are in the hands of people in the community.”