A good hand-off is crucial in a relay race, but it’s not the only factor. The retiring athlete has to let the next runner do the next lap in his or her own way, knowing  that they share the same goal but the style and tactics may be different. It’s the same for family-run Christian stores, as one generation hands the baton over to the next.

Andy Butcher

A commitment to holding onto core values while adapting to the changing marketplace has driven Stephen and Katrina Skinner as they’ve breathed new life into Sacred Melody in Syracuse, NY, while retaining its central mission.

“We want to be a watering hole for the community,” says Stephen, whose grandparents opened the original store in a small downtown space in 1957, playing gospel music outside. “It was very evangelistic. Every generation has whatever they feel the Lord has for them to do.”

The same emphasis continued when Stephen’s father took over the store, where, as a boy, Stephen would help label catalogs for mass mailings. That outreach emphasis fueled the store through expansion years, moving into a 20,000-square-foot space in the family-owned plaza and the opening of two other locations in the area. But by the time Stephen and Katrina came into the picture in the late 1990s, the outlook wasn’t as bright. It was clear that something had to change if Sacred Melody was to survive.

What remained the same was the conviction that the area needed the store’s Christian presence. It led the entrepreneurial couple to develop a portfolio of other business interests that indirectly help support the store. Their company has real estate, property management, development, and snow plow and yard maintenance interests.

While some people prosper and then decide to invest some of the overflow in ministry like a Christian bookstore, Stephen and Katrina began with the conviction they needed to keep Sacred Melody going and looked for ways to make a profit elsewhere to do that.

Downsizing challenges

These other thriving businesses mean the Skinners don’t draw a salary from Sacred Melody, but they still need it to be a sustainable operation, supporting the eight part-time staff.

“We’re going to do what we do well and be great at it, or we’re not going to be here,” says Katrina. “It’s not, ‘You have to support us.”

Revitalizing what has been widely known as Sacred Melody Plaza has been an important part of their approach. The store has downsized to around 3,500 square feet, with other tenants in the plaza including a Christian dance school, a coffee bar, and a restaurant.

The Skinners learned that downsizing isn’t just about moving into a smaller space and saving money. They had to adjust buying, merchandising, staffing—and countering public perception that smaller must mean worse. Nine years after reducing the square footage, “we still have people come in and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you are so much smaller,’” Katrina says. The answer: “You have to make it amazing.”

Doing so has not been an overnight project— more like a decade in the making. But Sacred Melody is on a solid financial footing again. Central to it all has been refining the store’s identity and inventory. Out have gone old staples like church supplies and curriculum.

“The churches aren’t supporting us anymore; they’re all going online,” Katrina explains.

Last year Sacred Melody stopped offering burn tracks in the reduced music section. The Skinners realized that the people who  knew how to use the system were downloading at home, meaning shoppers who don’t understand how it worked would tie up lots of staff time for just a small return.

“We have to make the numbers work,” says Katrina, who went back to school to learn bookkeeping to keep on top of things. “We’re a ministry, so we need to stay open, but we have to function in the realm of business.”

Streamlining decisions

Part of that financial emphasis means spending what money is available wisely. “We don’t order a lot,” Katrina says. “Three or four of a new release is about normal. You won’t walk in the store and find an endcap full of one product.”

The approach has reduced inventory and also cut the cost of returns, where “we were spending so much money.”

Keeping expenses down includes streamlined staffing and procedures. After becoming store manager, Katrina did away with the title when she discovered it meant lots of things got passed to her for decisions.

“I lost about 15 hours of my week just answering questions,” she says. Now as much as possible is delegated, within clear guidelines for things like coupons and returns.

“We don’t use titles,” Katrina says, acknowledging that delegating means “letting go of control.” Clear policies are important— “when there are boundaries and order, everything functions much better,” she observes, but people remain paramount.

Trustworthiness and teachability are the most important things, says Stephen, who provides employment for people recovering from tough situations in some of his other  businesses.

“If you have those two qualities, we can pretty much work with the rest,” he says. “If the foundation is solid, you have good people, you train them, and you set them free.”

Inviting promotions

Books are still important, but many people read only a handful a year, Katrina notes. “What can bring them in regularly—when they might see another book they might like?”

The answer at Sacred Melody is an increased emphasis on gifts, including consumables— such as sauces from local homeless ministry In My Father’s Kitchen.

“We want to be the first place you think of when you need to buy a gift—something that inspires someone else,” says Stephen.

There’s also a practical aspect to this focus. “Without margin, you’re spinning your wheels,” says Katrina. “You have to look at products that give you margin, which the gift industry does to the greatest degree.”

Tapping into this market also makes it possible to spotlight local artisans, which differentiate the store from others than carry the same national brands.

Making the store a place people come to discover new things extends to the marketing. They tinker with coupons so shoppers “don’t just come in for the item they already want. The goal is to get them to see new things.” So instead of the standard 20 percent off voucher, one email might offer a small free item, another a buy-oneget- one half-off deal.

“The idea is the element of surprise,” Katrina says. “Getting people to say, ‘What is Melody doing now?’ We want them to come in and find something they weren’t planning on buying.”

Some of the best deals are reserved for the store’s best customers: an invitation-only Sunday afternoon special event in November. They also cater for bargain lovers with clearance days when slow-movers are marked down radically. The events help avoid returns and provide a nice cash injection.

Building community

The emphasis on building a sense of community extends beyond the store. The plaza has been an incubator for other local businesses: Cafe Kubal started off adjoining the store and has since expanded into its own space, with other outlets in the area.

With a much smaller footprint and an eclectic merchandising style that encourages visitors to browse, Sacred Melody looks very different to its supersized days. “We wanted it to be more of a quaint country store and not just a big Christian warehouse,” says Katrina.

They have thought about changing the name—“some people think we’re a Catholic store or a guitar shop,” says Katrina, but there’s strong local recognition, so it stays. And the heart is also unchanged.

“The message remains the same, but the way you reach people has to change,” Stephen says. “We realized that the old model wasn’t working any more, for many reasons.”

While less overtly evangelistic than in the past, Sacred Melody continues as “a beacon, bringing hope and healing” to the community.

“When people come, regardless of who they are or their background, we want them to know they’re in a place where there isn’t going to be judgment, where there isn’t going to be condemnation,” Stephen says, “but there is going to be hope.”