Sue Smith sees harsh industry realities as opportunities for new strategies and unity.

Sue Smith hosts musician Steven Curtis Chapman at Baker Book House.

CBA members will readily recognize the name Sue Smith. A self-professed “retailer at heart,” Smith has served on the Board of Directors for CBA (as a Large Retail Director) and is currently the Chairman of the Board. She has been store manager at Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, since 2004.

THE STATE OF THE INDUSTRY

“It’s a difficult time in our industry,” says Smith. “Publishers and various vendors are losing ground. Stores are closing rapidly. Family Christian just closed their whole chain of stores and other chains are trying to survive. Just taking a current snapshot, I think that the picture appears dismal. Does it have to stay that way? Of course not.”

Smith stands prepared to address the brutal facts of the industry’s current reality with sound strategy. “My opinion is that we need to be more proactive and nimble as an industry,” she says. “We’re currently ‘reactive’ to consumer needs, instead of being out in front creating those needs. Even then, we react slowly and begrudgingly. Our industry is fractured, and quite territorial, in spite of having similar goals. We can regain ground with sustainability, and maybe even growth, if we all come to the table, and reestablish how we work together.

“We cannot camp out on ‘this is how we’ve always done business,’” continues Smith. “Unity for our industry means creating new business opportunities for publishers, vendors, and stores alike. What would this look like practically? Perhaps new discussions on pricing terms, competitive discounting, shipping expectations and opportunities for today’s consumer, increased communication between all groups, and shared consistent data … to start somewhere.”

CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

A giant like Family Christian going down has sent ripples through the entire marketplace already having to compete with Amazon. But Smith also lists dealing with customer shipping expectations, serving the church, and improving the store experience for customers as challenges to address.

“Overall, my main concern for the industry stores is that they will try to replicate what Family Christian was to their community,” says Smith. “As far as inventory goes, we’ve already accomplished this. In an attempt to gain margin, considerable amounts of backlist offerings were drained from Family stores, only to be replaced with higher-margin gift products. Many independents have followed suit.”

Smith says this business decision has worked for some, but overall, it has driven more consumers online. “We need to move past that and ask our communities and churches what they’re looking for.”

The mission statement at Baker Book House is to equip the church to live and grow in faith. “We focus a great deal on church business,” she says. “But to get the continued business of our local churches, we need to be Amazon competitive, in price, convenience, and shipping. We’ve created a program to get churches off online purchasing and back in our store. With their agreement to only shop us, we give them Amazon pricing and free delivery.”

Smith’s store works with 160 churches on this program, and the good news is that the math works. “With slimmer margins on each order but substantial growth in sales overall, we’ve increased our revenue while keeping our costs manageable. This is just one example of winning the church back. Healthy growth for our stores means building a renewed reliance on the church relationship, both in sales and expertise.”

APPRECIATE THE CUSTOMER

“We need to look at each customer as a lifelong customer,” Smith says. “That’s a mountainous feat considering that they can shop just about anywhere for Christian products. So, every time they enter our store, we have to ‘win’ them. That might be giving them a bigger discount than you wanted, or returning something past the return date, or just knowing them by name. But if they leave feeling appreciated for being there, they’ll return the next time and the next time. Our vision for their patronage needs to be long term.”

—Von Mitchell

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