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Though local church connections have long been promoted as an important source of business for independent stores, some seem to have given up on the potential market. Retailers either say they’re too busy with all the other things they have to invest the time needed, or that it’s simply not worth the effort because churches do most of their buying online.

Some cite direct-to-church competition from suppliers as a disincentive for pursuing church business, but it’s not a market all publishers are cultivating.

“We’ve tried a few initiatives but have found it difficult to work directly with churches in a comprehensive way,” says Justin Paul Lawrence, director of sales at InterVarsity Press. “My guess is that those who make the purchasing decisions think first of national retailers and catalogers. If there’s a local store that does a good job getting in front of them, then they are next in mind.

“The idea that they could get it directly from us just does not spring to mind,” he adds. “Other than Apple, what major brands do you purchase directly from the company?”

With all that in mind, retailers who’ve put church business on the back burner may want to reconsider and take heart from the experience of two stores, one large and one small, that have breathed new life into their church business.

“It’s been a Godsend,” says Betty Goeckner of the income generated for their Lifeline Christian Books and Gifts in Effingham, Illinois, since husband Ken started visiting local churches a few years ago, mining his years’ of cold-calling experience as a newspaper advertising rep. “It has helped turn the store around.”

Meanwhile, Baker Book House has seen its church business increase by almost 70 percent in the two years since former indie retailer Bob Gillett arrived to take over the program. Originally launched as Amazon Challenge, offering to better the online giant’s terms for churches that committed to ordering through the store, the program has been renamed Baker First to avoid needlessly advertising the competitor.

That sales increase hasn’t come without effort: Gillett has visited 350 churches in the area since he began, with about half of them coming on board. BBH’s staff is large enough for Gillett to be focused on churches full-time; at Lifeline, Goeckner gives one day a week to visiting.

Between them, the two men have some helpful pointers for other stores that want to consider ramping up their church relations.

  • Don’t be afraid of church staff. “They are wonderful people who are there to serve others,” says Gillett.
  • Don’t be put off by an empty parking lot. “Don’t assume no one’s there; they could be parked round the back where the church office often is,” says Goeckner.
  • Don’t make an appointment. “Just talk with whoever is there in the office; they often are the ones who decide where they are going to get the books the pastor wants anyway,” says Gillett.
  • Don’t try to sell the first time. “Go as an ambassador of the store, with the idea of how you can help them do their job better,” says Goeckner.
  • Don’t go empty-handed. Gillett sometimes takes little goodies. Goeckner leaves them with a single sheet listing some of the store’s offers—on good, colored stock, so it stands out—or a catalog or publisher samples.
  • Don’t talk about your own church. “That’s not the issue; it’s their church and your store,” says Goeckner.

Regular follow-up contact is important, they both say, to help keep the store top of mind and because staff or volunteers often change in churches, meaning someone new is given the buying responsibility.

Additionally, don’t assume a big church won’t be interested in your service, or that if you’re already serving one, you already have all their business (oftentimes there will be the “right hand/left hand” syndrome at play).

While both men offer deliveries on some orders, they also emphasize the value of getting church buyers into the store itself, where they get to see other resources that are available. This year BBH turned Executive Assistants Day into a weeklong event at the store, with treats and prizes. “It really cemented a lot of additional business for us,” says Gillett.

Mornings are the best time for visits, according to Goeckner, because some churches are staffed only part-time. Mondays should be avoided because many churches offices are closed then; Fridays aren’t good either, as it’s another off day or everyone is getting ready for the weekend.

Gillett acknowledges the church emphasis is easier for a store of BBH scale, but also put effort into building church business back when he had his own independent store in a town of 10,000 people.

“I knew that in order to survive we had to have a good base of church business, which we went out and built,” he recalls. “The opportunities are there. I would encourage any Christian store to just get out there and talk with their local churches.”

He also encourage stores to talk to each other about how they have learned to build church business, inviting them to email him with their ideas and questions at bob.gillett@bakerbookhouse.com.

Read more about church trends and Christian retail store opportunities in “Church Trends Reveal Surprising Christian Store Opportunities.”

—Andy Butcher