Family Christian closure creates potential resurgence for indies willing to innovate.

As the dust settles on the demise of Christian retail’s biggest single-market presence, many have been wondering whether it’s going to turn out to be ash or gold.

Some of that Family Christian Stores’ business is surely going to Amazon, while a portion will simply disappear altogether, as it did in the wake of Borders’ 2011 closure. Like others, Ed Leonard, VP of New Day Christian Distribution, has concern about the impact on the rest of the industry through the loss of that 240-storefront visibility.

But he sees a great opportunity for others, including independents, to step in and fill that gap. It’s a view echoed across the industry, from suppliers to distributors to retailers like David Almack who says this post-Family period could be indies’ “Gideon moment.”

That’s not all just happy talk and wishful thinking, either. Positive indicators include the April acquisition of 15 Family locations by Harrison House president and CEO Troy Wormell and his wife, Joyce, for their new Empowered Life Christian Books & Gifts small chain.

There’s interest from others, including LifeWay. The chain hopes to pick up customers in the 140 or so markets where it overlapped with Family. Additionally, “we’re looking at all of the Family markets to determine in which areas it would make sense for LifeWay to expand its presence,” says VP Cossy Pachares. “As a nonprofit ministry, it’s our heart’s desire to open more locations. We just need the support of individuals and churches to make that happen.”

ACTING QUICKLY

If the Family closure is a window of opportunity, it’s one that will be closing soon as former shoppers settle into new buying habits. And it’s not only Christian retail that could fill the Family gap. Hobby Lobby stores broadened its Christian books inventory before Family’s end was announced and has since added DVDs and music, too.

Independents wanting to capitalize need to be moving quickly. Some started within hours of learning about the liquidation, visiting Family locations in their area to express their concern for the staff and leaving business cards and fliers about their store to be passed along.

For her Parable Christian Store of St. Joseph in St. Joseph, Michigan, Lorraine Valk bought a front-page ad on a flier going out to more than 100,000 homes, while at Logos of Dallas in Texas, owner Rick Lewis was considering adding the zip codes of the Family closest to him for his next catalog mailing.

Valk has also turned to social media—“we need to be where our customers are to stay top-of-mind; touching once a month or less with print isn’t enough”—along with others.

Susan Chipman was among those targeting Facebook ads, at the bookstore at Granger Community Church in Granger, Indiana, where she is director of retail services. Spending just $5 a day on ads focused on interests such as Family Christian, Christian music, radio, and ministry opportunities within a 10-mile radius, the store’s Facebook page gained 45 new followers in three days.

Whatever stores do, it’s not a time to sit back and wait for former Family shoppers to find their way to them. “You need to be willing to get out there and talk to the community in which you live and have your store reflect the faith traditions of the people in your community,” says Dave Lewis, executive VP of sales and marketing at Baker Publishing Group (BPG). “You don’t have to be like everyone else—you just have to serve your community well.”

Chipman’s efforts highlight that, after peaking a decade ago and then declining in numbers, church stores could be part of the new post-Family landscape.

In the wake of the chain’s wind down, website Crosswalk.com reposted a 2014 blog by Mecklenburg Community Church senior pastor Dr. James Emery White on “The Need for Church Bookstores.” In it, he wrote of the need for Christian bookstores “that are well-stocked with vetted titles to serve new and existing Christians … especially in a day increasingly challenged in terms of a Christian worldview and a mind for God.”

White told how each campus of his Charlotte, North Carolina, church featured The Grounds, a coffee shop and bookstore carrying titles unavailable at most stores—“classics (or at least essential reading),” and reference works and study materials “that few can afford to carry.”

LOOKING FORWARD

Many of those Christian MARKET spoke with were less interested in holding a Family Christian autopsy than planning an independent Christian retail party, but they did look back on what they believe went wrong in as far as it offered a what-not-to-do pointer for the future.

The chain’s inability to overcome the operating limits that were part of its 2015 bankruptcy recovery effort finally brought in the wrecking ball, but many said that the rot had set in long before that—too much emphasis on best-sellers available everywhere, too big a reliance on discounts, no differentiation for local markets, and generally poor customer service.

The bookstore of the future will need to look more like the bookstore of the past, according to Almack, who also serves as the national director and publisher at CLC USA. “The things we spent a whole lot of time and money on in the last 15 to 20 years—digital this and that, marketing this and that—I am not saying all of them were a bad idea.”

But he’s convinced that there needs to be more emphasis on the long-time fundamentals of good selection and great customer service, with staff “who absolutely love Christian books and can recommend them well.” That means an emphasis on what he believes is Christian retail’s big differentiator: “We are not an algorithm—we are human beings with emotions and passions and that’s what resonates with customers when they come in.”

Almack’s back-to-basics rallying cry has been well received, in recent Christian MARKET articles and his book, The Bookstore That Matters. He will be expounding more on his message during a seminar at CBA UNITE 2017 in Cincinnati, in June.

Meanwhile, stores looking to capitalize on the Family Christian opportunity could also learn a few things from how the ABA market responded following the Borders collapse. The chain’s end sparked something of an indie renaissance, with a good number of new openings.

Much of that growth is the result of down-to-earth practices rather than rocket science. “They’ve become very integral to their community,” observes Donald Roseman, VP of retail sales at Ingram Content Group/Spring Arbor. Fresh from visiting several indies in California, he enthuses about how “really encouraging it was to see how vital they are to their community—just the foot traffic along through the day”— fueled by in-store events—“was impressive.”

That point is echoed by Almack, who observes that the common denominator in the successful stores he writes about in his book is that they have “deep connections to the local community—to the point that if they went out of business, it mattered to people.”

If a sense of community and good customer service both sound fairly common sense business practices, they should perhaps resonate especially well with Christian stores centered on a faith and worldview whose bedrock is a sense of belonging and caring for others. In other words, if a Christian store can’t excel at those two things, there must be something amiss.

“Place-making is something that more and more people value,” notes Justin Paul Lawrence, director of sales for InterVarsity Press (IVP). “Christian indies are unique in ways that Family locations could never be. That quirkiness, that charm is something that could be leveraged more. You’ll never be the Apple store, but that likely doesn’t matter.”

Lawrence also continues to beat the drum for stores to connect with pastors and those in Christian higher ed. “They continue to need books as tools even as the market for Christian Living changes,” he points out. And what’s beyond the coffeehouse concept, he wonders: “Hosting pop-up stores for local craft merchants? Farmers markets in the parking lot? Church party nights?”

Lewis identifies the elements behind the ABA indie resurgence as “knowing why you exist, communicating that to your customers, and creating ongoing ways to listen to their feedback and opinions.”

This really knowing your customer essential isn’t a one-time survey thing, Almack notes. “Your customers change over time,” he points out. “Even if they are the same people, they change”—what’s important to them, how they consume media, and more.

SEEKING HELP

Greatest Gift & Scripture Supply in Pueblo, CO takes advantage of services that help them save money they can spend on product.

Another area for stores to focus on is mining the existing helps and services out there. “We need to take a closer look at the shipping programs that are out there and capitalize on them,” says Heather Trost, a CBA board member and owner of The Greatest Gift & Scripture Supply Store in Pueblo, Colorado.

Having just joined Siriani, with whom CBA offers breaks on shipping, she says, “I wish I had taken the time to look into this years ago—especially now with how the shipping industry has had to change their rules due to Amazon’s shipping practices, it really makes a difference. We can spend that money on product rather than getting it here.”

While indies have long complained that they often get the short end of the stick from suppliers, some see that changing. Since talking with a rep about how direct-to-consumer efforts hurt her, Trost has seen one publisher make changes in its church catalog, stripped of ordering information and with a back cover blank where she can add her store details.

As a result, “I have changed some things in how I’m going about trying to get church business back,” she says.

Almack agrees, encouraging stores to ask suppliers how they might be able to help. “Vendors really want you to succeed,” he says, recalling how a special he agreed with one publisher on an order for a dozen Bibles made him competitive with Amazon.

Not that everything is fine. Valk lamented a vendor site advertising exclusive free gifts for direct purchases there. “That’s counterproductive,” she says. “They could offer that promotion to brick-and-mortar as well, and encourage those purchases locally.”

Anchor Distributors are “open to ideas from indies and vendors on how we can stand with the indies,” says VP John Whitaker. The company has been expanding its product base, offering Bible imprinting, and upgrading its website to help stores find products more easily.

Roseman encourages stores to look at existing Ingram services, such as special orders that can be shipped either direct to a customer’s home—subtly offering a challenge to people’s knee-jerk turn to Amazon—or to the store for pickup, bringing that shopper back in.

Underscoring Roseman’s point, Lewis says that BPG has been considering increasing everyday terms for independent retailers to help them respond to the Family loss. But “right now the challenge is to clearly communicate all of the special offers they currently have access to that they seldom take advantage of.”

—Andy Butcher

Read more, including insights on long-range planning and broadening scope, at IndieStoresRenaissance.