Thursday, June 25, 2009

The future of Christian retail

With the closing of Crossroads Books and Gifts, the recent talk among our staff and customers has centered around the future of Christian retail. Everybody has an opinion and that includes me. I don't pretend to be a business guru or an authority on the Christian retail industry. I have, however, spent most of the last 13 years in the ownership or management of a Christian bookstore and am passionate about that calling. For what it's worth, here are a few of my observations:
  • Christian retail will continue to exist in the same way that hardware stores, banks, and drugstores still exists. Those industries have undergone similar changes to the one that this industry is now experiencing. The majority of the stores that remain will likely be a part of chains, franchises, etc. rather than independent stores, although some independents will survive.
  • Consumer buying is driven by convenience. Shopping on-line is convenient. Picking up the latest Christian best-seller while you're at Wal-Mart or Books-A-Million is convenient. Christian retailers will continue to lose market share to the Internet, Big Box stores and national secular bookstore chains for this reason.
  • Consumer buying is also driven by price. There are those that would have us believe that customers are eager to pay for good service. Customers certainly desire good service but their quest for the lowest possible price is a powerful motivator. Consumers want the best of both worlds: the best service but at the lowest price. When push comes to shove, price seems to be winning, despite what some may claim.
  • Consumers sometimes assume that the independent Christian retailer's price represents price gouging failing to understand that retail is anything but a level playing field. Independent Christian retailers can and do offer excellent value to their customers but most don't have the resources to advertise the way that Big Box and chain stores can.
  • Successful Christian retailers will model successful secular retailers in ways that may be unappealing to the traditional shopper in Christian retail. Their selection will become limited to what sells best, most frequently and at a margin that covers overhead. As an example, your local Christian retailer will no longer be able to stock the wide selection of titles for which they have been known if the consumer is purchasing the most popular titles at discounters and via the Internet. Although Christian retailers will no longer carry as broad of a selection of titles, they still can be counted on to provide fast service on special orders of titles not in stock.
  • Consumers will need to do their homework as expertise on Christian products will not be as readily available in the alternate channels of supply. This is not to say that employees of the other supply channels are not good or talented people but it's unlikely that a person is knowledgeable about diverse product lines. With the demise of the specialty retailer goes the speciality expertise. The good news is that there is ample information available to the consumer to make a wise choice if the consumer is willing to look for it on his own.
OK, that's my two cents worth and that's probably all it's worth.

What do you think the future of Christian retail will look like?

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