GO BIG OR GO HOME

Andy Butcher

That might be considered the unlikely philosophy, in a small-town sort of way, of one long-time Christian store partnership at a time when many others are hunkering down to the new normal of shrinking business.

The counter-intuitive approach by Don and Melanie Yates seems to be working at Yates-Chance Christian Bookstore (Cullman, AL). Upgrading, investing, and refocusing have helped their business see significant growth over the past few years. “It’s paid off,” says Don of the changes instituted since 2010. Sales aren’t quite back to the heady levels of the late 1990s, “but we are getting close.” The couple added 2,000 square feet to their store by extending into another part of the building they have owned since 1994. That move came as part of a major overhaul: “We had to do something; we were very dated,” Don admits.

The extra space, taking the store to 8,000 square feet, was given to an expanded gifts department, which has been an important part of the turnaround. But equally significant has been a heightened emphasis on the Bible, bringing the department from the back of the store and beefing it up.They made the switch at the suggestion of the man they hired for the redesign. Don explains, “He said, ‘You need to take your No. 1 thing and put it up front and make sure that people know that the Bible is what is important to you.’ [The move] hasn’t disappointed us.”

‘KNOW YOUR BIBLES’

Yates-Chance features both a burn bar and a healthy CD inventory.

Bible sales now account for around 45 percent of business, with the KJV topping the charts—reflecting the conservative nature of the community. Yet even in an area steeped in church tradition, many shoppers need some basic help when they come to look for a Bible.

“I’m amazed at how little people know,” Don observes. “There’s a church on every corner around here, but people come in and don’t know the difference between the KJV and the newer versions.” Helping them understand the differences between translations is essential: “You win their confidence, and then they feel good about the choice they’ve made.”

Don sees two factors in the Bible growth. It’s not easy to make a good selection online: “People want to see it and hold it.” And while other purchases might be considered discretionary, a lot of folks still view a Bible as an essential. “You have to know your Bibles,” Don says. Offering Bible engraving at $3 a turn helps, too, especially when most purchasers seem to choose the option.

Customers’ bent toward the KJV is twinned, perhaps not surprisingly, with a love for Southern Gospel music that means Yates-Chance is different from many other stores in another way. Its music department is still fairly strong, though it’s down to about 15 percent of revenues from its 25 percent high of yesteryear.

The store carries a lot of long-time favorites—the likes of The Kingsmen  Quartet and The Cathedrals—selling for $6.99 per CD. “That’s not a major investment,” Don says. “People gobble them up.”

‘WATCH YOUR INVENTORY’

An important part of the music department is the burn bar that provides Southern Gospel and backing tracks. Here the Yates have learned that while offering digital music is effective, you still have to have some physical product in stock. “If you let your inventory get too low on music, they’ll just not come in and shop in the burn bar,” Don explains. “They want to come in and see something on the shelves.”

Stores that went burn bar-only made a mistake, he believes. “A lot of people have tried to do that, but it doesn’t work, because if they can’t buy it off the shelf occasionally, they’re going to get tired of coming in.” Physical product also gives a shopper something to browse while they’re waiting in the burn bar.

“When a customer sits down there and listens, they’ll have it tied up for 10 or 15 minutes,” says Don, “so you have to have something for the others, and if you have a full store of stuff, they can be looking until they get done.” While trimming one’s sails in the face of storms makes sense at one level, it can send the wrong message to a store’s most important asset: its customers. Serious downsizing can “signal defeat, not only to yourself, but to your community,” Don comments. But for Yates, “Failure is not an option, and you have to do what you have to do.”

A frugal approach to business meant that the Yates were able to make all their changes without going into debt, but nonetheless there was an element of risk. “To me it was a necessary gamble,” he says. “We had to do something, and necessity is the mother of invention. We just thought that this was the way to go because we aren’t going out of business.” Melanie’s parents opened Chance Christian Bookstore in 1975, with Yates being added to the name when she and Don took it over in 1991. The two full-timers are supplemented by four part-time staff.

‘BALANCED VIEW OF MINISTRY’

Though the Yates have swum against the tide, they’ve done so carefully. Keeping a close eye on cash flow is vital, Don says. To that end he takes advantage of freefreight- both-ways offers that allow him to bring in additional copies of important books to make more of a display impact. “I don’t just say, ‘Let’s buy this and if it’s God’s will we can pay for it,’” he says. “I’ve never operated like that. I think a lot of start-up Christian bookstores made it for a few years and then went out of business because they had an unbalanced view of ministry.

“Just because you’re in a Christian business doesn’t mean you can run it any differently than you could if you were selling golf clubs,” he adds. “The Lord expects us to use our common sense to know when to buy and when not to overextend, and so far that has worked pretty well for us.”

The Yates’ approach has been to change where necessary while holding on to what still works. That includes events like an annual Vacation Bible School workshop, and local author days. Attendance at book signings may not always be great, but they host them with minimal effort, setting up a table and leaving the guest to it.

“Some people don’t like to have author signings because they are afraid nobody is going to show up, and it is going to be embarrassing,” Don says. “It may be—but you have to get over the fear; if you don’t try, you never know. Sometimes the ones you think will be a dud turn out to be pretty good—and vice versa.”

Don and Melanie Yates