It’s a known fact that the first five years of a child’s life are the most crucial. Ninety percent of brain development occurs within these significant years, shaping a child’s intelligence, emotional stability, and social skills. This same window of time is the most critical for spiritual development as well.

Retailers have an immense, life-changing opportunity to come alongside parents to help build a child’s spiritual foundation in the early stages of life. This challenge should encourage Christian storeowners to re-evaluate their approach to kids products, especially when technology threatens print and culture pushes its secular agenda on kids at an alarming rate.

As we dive into spring, let’s reflect on the hits and misses in kids products last year and look to upcoming trends. From the reigning popularity of board books to the growing gap in YA fiction, retailers can serve one of their most important customers: children.

Childlike Faith

God primed human nature to be attuned to Him, and in the first five years of a child’s life, parents have the greatest influence. After that, the tug of the world starts to hold more sway,

“Children have great capacity for faith, living largely in the unseen world with rich imaginations where anything is possible and nothing is unbelievable,” says Callie Grant, founder and publisher of Graham Blanchard. “They have a relationship with God that we can’t see.”

Kids may have a sixth sense for unconditional love, yet it’s up to their family to instill a love for God’s Word early on. Spiritual development is an overwhelming task for many parents—especially first-time moms and dads—and creating a space in a Christian retail store where they can discover trusted resources and encounter genuinely helpful frontliners can be a godsend.

However, Christian children’s products need to contain more than just surface knowledge of primary biblical heroes to compete with the enticing stories culture is telling. Adam and Eve, Abraham, Noah, Mary and Joseph, Jesus. They’re all central characters in the story, but now—perhaps more than ever—kids need parents to connect the dots.

“The Bible is—start to finish—a love story of God for us,” says Linda Howard, acquisitions director for Tyndale’s children and youth division. “I think that can get lost at times when we focus on telling the same individual stories over and over instead of putting them into the perspective of the entire account God gave us.

“We can’t keep telling the same Bible stories the same way,” she says. “We need to compete with the screen time that’s pulling at kids of all ages today.”

While retailers can’t minimize the distractions the digital age imposes on children, they can provide healthy, educational, and life-giving alternatives through product offerings and the experiences they create when kids and their parents walk through their doors.

“Spiritual life is inherently multilayer,” says Grant. “We want to plant seeds for children to think and grow in the unique way God designed them.”

Staying competitive with the mainstream toy and book industry is key. To maintain relevancy, Christian retailers must consistently deliver resources that are not only trustworthy and accurate, but also compelling and entertaining.

“God primed human nature to be attuned to Him, and in the first five years of a child’s life, parents have the greatest influence. After that, the tug of the world starts to hold more sway,” says Grant. “This is a prime window of opportunity for developing lasting ties with God. With compelling evidence in hand, the secular world has been all over this age group for more than 20 years.”

Grant points to major brands like Baby Einstein as leading the way in capturing the attention of parents and children alike. While it provides educational value, the brand does nothing to further a child’s spiritual development.

“The cognitive growth of the first 18 months alone is staggering,” says Grant, “and winning the mindshare of it is of supreme importance to the secular world and should be to Christians, too.”

Lighthouse Christian Books & Gifts (Bedford,IN) hosts a VeggieTales Noah’s Ark premier party, with games and activities for kids.

The Core

While the kids section at Christian stores generally includes an assortment of products ranging from toys and stuffed animals to CDs and DVDs, books continue to be at the core of every CBA store’s offerings.

“In many ways, reading together is God’s gift to the spiritual life of the whole family,” says Grant.

Board books are the first step in building a child’s home library, and these introductory books are doing well at retail. “We’ve seen a rise in the purchase of board books over the last year or so, which is a good thing,” says Howard. “Hopefully, that means parents are reading to their children at younger ages.”

Children’s devotionals are also soaring in popularity.

“Parents who have a devotional time often want to encourage their children to do the same,” says Laura Minchew, senior VP/publisher of gift books, Tommy Nelson children’s books, and new media at HarperCollins Christian Publishing.

The company has paired bestselling adult devotional content, like Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling and Max Lucado’s Grace for the Moment, with topics applicable to kids.

“The children’s devotionals have the same Scripture and daily themes as their adult counterparts,” says Minchew. “This allows families to do their devotions independently but then have discussions around the takeaways from the day.”

It’s easy to see how parents’ spiritual lives directly affect their child’s spiritual growth. That’s why it’s essential to stock store shelves with resources that can engage the whole family.

“We really try to promote the ‘legacy’ in our products,” says Parable Group Marketing Specialist Randy Ross. “So many children learn about faith through their parents, so encouraging that shared family experience is part of our thought process. The stores we serve are engaged with equipping parents to not only raise but disciple their children.”

B&H Kids Publisher Dan Lynch echoes this sentiment. “I see a move back toward more traditional formats that have solid foundations. Parents want books they can count on to help them teach their children solid biblical principles, and it’s important they’re trustworthy.”

The Hits

Not only can brick-and-mortar stores be where Christian parents discover timely, reputable resources, they also should be known for top-notch service.

“Christian retailers have a wonderful opportunity to offer a wide breadth of products you won’t see online,” says Minchew. “Staff knowledge and training remain key so that buyers can find just the right book to meet their child’s needs.”

While ABA and mass accounts are growing segments of the Christian publishing pie, they will never replace the experience that should be happening every single day at Christian retail.

“A customer may walk into a mass account and leave with a Christian book, but a customer walks into a Christian bookstore for a reason,” says Lynch. “They have a need in their lives, and if they have kids, they want to find solid products to instill Christian values, not a generic item they can get cheaper at a general market account.”

IN-store events keep kids engaged in the store throughout the year.

A kind, welcoming, and well-trained sales staff can connect parents with the products best suited for the age and stage of their particular child, but what about the parents themselves? Grant concedes retailers have an amazing opportunity to walk alongside new parents, even before a child is born, noting that first-time parents are one of the fastest growing segments of the church today.

“The secular world has responded with a boatload of classes for expecting couples on the physical side of caring for a child. There should be similar support for them in nursing a child’s spiritual life,” he says. “It also gives retailers a great opportunity to step in as mentors for expecting and new parents by offering evening workshops, setting up a special section with books and journals, offering a baby shower registry, and even expanding the board book department. They build lifetime loyalty that way and accomplish their goal of growing God’s kingdom.”

As the child grows, Christian retailers can then serve as a guide for a child’s spiritual journey, pointing parents to the best resources to help them nurture their son’s or daughter’s unique gifts, identity, and God-given purpose. Moreover, it’s equally important to keep the kids themselves coming back to the children’s section, especially as they get older. Often, that means merchandising with a child in mind by displaying products on lower shelves; using colorful signage with simple, kid-friendly language; having sample toys available to play with; and creating a fun space where they actually want to learn and explore while their mom or dad shop.

“I think the key is to make our kids department appeal to the kids so that they will want to see what all we have there for them,” says Brenda Harrison, owner of Lighthouse Christian Books & Gifts (Bedford, IN). She cites their in-store events as one way they engage children on a regular basis.

Events are often tied to a specific product promotion where the store offers fun games, prizes, and refreshments. For instance, the store recently partnered with HarperCollins Christian Publishing and The Parable Group for an event celebrating the 25th anniversary of The Beginners’ Bible. The store also hosts in-store movie premieres with the release of every new “VeggieTales” movie, host an annual “Happy Birthday Party for Jesus” early in December, and hold a “Resurrection Celebration” for Easter. Plus, parties are also planned around major children’s book launches and author signings.

Like many retailers, Lighthouse provides an annual summer reading program for children; for every five books they read, kids get to spin an in-store prize wheel and are also invited to an awards celebration in September.

Kids’ love of reading is encouraged through Lighthouse Christian Books & Gifts’ Rewards of Reading program.

Meanwhile, The Munce Group hosts an annual Kid’s Day in their stores nationwide that celebrates their youngest customers.

“[These events] encourage a lifetime interest in reading,” says Munce Group President Kirk Blank. “The family-friendly day offers opportunities to help with world literacy and encourage children to carry out the words of Jesus to bring the Good News everywhere.”

In addition, Munce has been executing a popular summer reading program for the past decade. They currently have 100 stores participating. “We actually work with a collaboration of retailers, librarians, marketers, and authors to develop [the program],” he explains. “It has been a fun project. In fact, the authors have been so excited that they’ve written some exclusive material to include.”

At a time when even the youngest family members are glued to iPhone screens, is the emphasis on books furthering the negative stereotype that Christian retail is behind the times? Hardly. In fact, the 2015 Nielsen Children’s Book Summit indicated just the opposite.

“One of the key takeaways of the summit was that book sales are on the rise because parents want their children to spend less time in front of screens,” says Minchew. “People figured that e-books and apps would eliminate print book sales, but print books remain the lion’s share of our sales. I predict children’s books will remain primarily print-driven because there is such a wonderful connection when parents and children spend time reading together.”

B&H has found success in combining both digital and print elements through products like their “Big Picture Interactive” line, which includes books for toddlers to elementary-age children. “This line connects kids with an app that brings a level of gamification to the printed word,” Lynch explains.

The Misses

Outside of books, electronic games and interactive toys appear to be the biggest missing piece at Christian retail. “For many years now, people have come in asking for Christian games for their kids or grandkids to play on their handheld devices,” says Harrison, adding, “We had none to offer them.”

Blank agrees. “The only area where we just do not have anything to offer is in the area of Christian game apps or games for Wii, PlayStation, etc.”

The other hole? YA fiction.

“We have, in many ways, abdicated the middle grade and YA audiences,” says Howard. “We aren’t providing books that reach these ages in ways that make them want to buy a Christian book versus something like ‘Divergent’ or ‘Hunger Games.’”

“Stores need to focus on the middle reader and teen categories, which are some of the largest categories in the general market,” Lynch agrees. “Teens won’t be caught dead in the kids section of a Christian bookstore. Move them out of the ‘kids’ section. Create their own space. As music continues to struggle to find its place at retail, why not move the teen books into that area?”

Ultimately, retailers need to view their kids section as an entry point to the rest of their store. If kids find value and security in Christian retail at an early age, they’ll come back to Christian retail as adults. It’s a cycle worth perpetuating. After all, today’s kids are tomorrow’s future consumers.

“We need to focus on our core and provide high quality, engaging books, DVDs, and toys that still hit hard with biblical values,” Lynch maintains. “This is more important today than ever before.”

-Lindsay Williams