It’s become all too clear in the past few years that faith alone isn’t enough to succeed in Christian retail. You have to have enough business smarts to ensure the ministry keeps going. But, at the end of the day, there are still times when the right way to go is ignoring what makes sense.
Such has been the case for Mindy Van Dyke, whose Stepping Stones Christian Bookstore in Grinnell, IA, was feeling the squeeze itself when she decided to open a second store—at the height of the economic collapse in 2010.
Commuting between her original location and the other in Marshalltown, some 35 miles away—Van Dyke acknowledges that the move was, at least, counter intuitive.
Someone had alerted her to the closure of a Christian store in Marshalltown, but she “didn’t have the time or the money” to consider stepping into the gap. But then, as she prayed one morning, “God just started laying out the plan, and for every reason I had for not doing it, He had the answer.”
So she stepped out. “It was a really big leap of faith,” she admits. Yet, at the same time, “it was one of the most clear times that I have ever felt God was speaking to me. There was no way that I could not do it, because I was that certain it was from the Lord.”
The past few years have provided the unlikely wisdom in her decision. Though Stepping Stones isn’t raking in money, “we are able to continue to fill a void in the community.”
The move wasn’t the only time she did something that raised eyebrows. Having launched Stepping Stones in 2002 while enjoying a successful career as director of development for a regional medical center, Van Dyke felt called to leave the secure job behind and concentrate on Christian retailing full-time.
“People wondered what I was thinking,” she recalls. “From a worldly perspective, most people would think it was a stupid move. But as you grow in your faith, the more you hear God’s voice, the more you want to do what He is telling you to do.”
“There are real benefits of having two locations,” she recognizes. “With a lot of gift companies, you have to buy two or three of something, so it’s nice that you can split the order between two stores. If a customer comes in at one of the store and I’m out if it there but have it at the other store, I can usually get it to them in a day or two.”
In addition to switching inventory between the two stores as necessary, Van Dyke carries more Spanish-language resources at the Marshalltown outlet to meet the needs of the large Hispanic population in the area.
At the same time, Van Dyke also believes strongly in good business practices. She keeps an eagle eye on her inventory—“I love it … I could do it for hours and not feel like I’m working”—not just looking at but trying to interpret the numbers. “When we brought it in, how quickly it sold,” she says. “If I have had it six months, am I not going to bring it back in, or is it just starting to come on?”
Returns are an equally important part of the mix. “Anything older than six months, if it’s returnable we’ll return it,” she says. “If not, we’ll mark it down, starting at 20 percent. I don’t know how stores stay in business if they don’t do returns; we want to be able to bring new stuff in.”
One of the most important decisions is where to invest the limited time that she has. Producing an effective email, which she could do well because of her marketing background, “takes two to three hours to do a really good job; when there’s only one of me and two stores, time is of the essence.”
That has meant signing on with Innovative, which now handles the bulk of Stepping Stones’ email marketing, though Van Dyke can still send out the occasional direct email herself if she really needs to.
Though both Stepping Stones are in small rural communities where most people know everyone else, it’s still a challenge to keep the businesses front-of-mind. “I’m amazed how we will still have people come in and say, ‘We didn’t know you were here,’” she says.
Radio advertising has been successful, but she has had to cut back because of the cost. Through her membership in the local chamber of commerce, however, Stepping Stones is going to be featured in a local cable channel advert for community businesses.
Over the past couple of years Van Dyke has seen some success with the United States Post Office’s Every Door Direct Mail program. This has proved to be a cheaper alternative to bulk mail, which can be expensive and time-consuming.
“I can mail something for only 17 cents a copy,” says Van Dyke, who sometimes uses the service to send out some of her Send The Light Distribution catalogs.
She also has a standard postcard ready to go, with a coupon on it. “I can do a 500-piece mailing and usually the postage is about $75. I do that sporadically as I have the money.”
Off-site appearances are an important part of getting the stores’ name out. Stepping Stones will set up a display at community events.
“Sometimes people think of a Christian bookstore as a stuffy, religious place and who would want to go there? We try to illustrate that is not who we are, and show what we have,” she says.
Van Dyke is looking forward to adding Integra Interactive’s My Artfully system at both locations; large screens will enable shoppers to see wall decor images life-size and set them in different room configurations, to better visualize how they might go in their homes.
“I’m really excited about that,” she says. “We do a lot of wall art, it’s been a growing area for us”— overtaking books as the lead category—“but as a small store you only have so much room [for display], so in the past we would have to pull catalogs out and special order.”
For Van Dyke, the My Artfully experiment is just part of what it takes to keep going. “You have to keep trying things,” she says, which in turn means making the time to evaluate what you’re doing and how well. “My approach is, if it works, you keep doing it. If this isn’t working, then let’s try something different.”
One example is wedding invitations. The stores used to carry catalogs, but “people don’t do that any more,” going online instead. “So we dropped them.”
Good customer service is central, naturally. “We bend over backward to make sure they get what they want,” she says. “Sometimes I’m sure the amount of time we put into it means I probably didn’t make any money, but you have to look at the long-term picture. You want them to come and know you’re going to take care of them.”
And money isn’t the bottom line. “If you focus on the lives you’re touching, and the difference you’re making in the community, that’s so much more fulfilling than making a lot of money,” Van Dyke says, “because money is just money, and you can’t take it with you.”
In some ways, Van Dyke sees Stepping Stones continuing a family calling: uncle and aunt Len and Sharon Gosselink were longtime owners of Gosselink’s Christian Bookstore in Pella, IA. “I have fond memories of going there,” Van Dyke says. “I always had a sense of pride that our family had that type of business.”
That continues with Stepping Stones’ mission statement of “furthering God’s kingdom in the communities we serve, and helping people along in their faith journey.”