OK—maybe manifesto is a little too strong, and “thrival” is not a real word, but I got your attention. Thrival is a word I made up by combining the words survival and thriving. With all the turmoil in the world of Christian retail lately, I have been thinking a lot about what it will take not only to survive but to thrive in the new world that we live in. With that in mind, the following are ten ideas and suggestions I think could make a real difference for those of us who apply them. I don’t know about you, but I would rather thrive than just survive.
1. Focus on market niches where we can be competitive and there is in fact less competition. I realized recently that our stores carry the largest “in stock” selection of Bibles in our city and that we are not talking enough about that opportunity for ministry and sales. As I was thinking about it, another thought that dawned on me is that we also carry the largest selection of Bible accessories, Bible covers and audio Bibles. Though there is in fact plenty of competition in the Bible marketplace, there is less competition for Bible accessories and Bible covers. Some other areas for niche thinking include:
- Kids, Tweens and Teens products
- Church Supplies
- Greeting cards
2. Embrace new media marketing. If you are like me, the concept of blogging sounded vaguely “weird” just a couple years ago. Given that reality, you are now reading this information on my blog. The world of consumer marketing has radically changed, and we must change to reach the customers we already serve in more effective ways and to appeal to new customers as well. Migrating our marketing efforts to e-blasts, Facebook fan pages and blog posts is an essential part of thriving in the new world we live in. People want to receive their information in ways that they are most familiar with—and that is rapidly becoming on-line for most of us. This change should not mean abandoning direct mail and radio, but simply enhancing the effective marketing efforts we are already employing. These new media initiatives can actually cost less and produce greater results for the effort involved.
3. Develop a service mentality. We have to move from a transactional and commodity mindset to one of service in all that we do. If we think that simply having a great selection in a clean store in a good location is going to cause us to thrive, I think we are sadly mistaken—and the closure of so many stores with those exact qualifications is the living (or dying) proof. We must see each customer as a guest in our ministry/resource centers. They each have unique needs and expectations, and it is our job and opportunity to learn what their needs are and do our best to serve them. If people are frustrated that we don’t have music soundtracks in stock, consider offering the My Media Burn Bar as a solution. If people want to make their Bibles more personal, offer Bible imprinting. If people want special orders mailed to their homes, consider using Spring Arbor’s Mail-to-Home options. At the end of each day, ask yourself, “Have I met people’s needs today?” not just, “Have my sales increased?” By serving people’s needs you will increase your sales.
4. Be community focused. Ultimately, God places each of our stores in unique community settings. To be honest with you, our stores did not really begin to grow in any significant way until we began to understand our community and its specific needs. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What really matters to my customers?
- How can I make heart connections with the people I serve?
- What is going on in my community that I need to get involved in as an advocate?
- How can I make “local” a strength for my ministry, not a weakness?
5. Stop trying to be all things to all people. This may sound unbiblical, but the reality is, we cannot achieve that goal—and trying to do so will dilute our particular DNA. If each of us focuses on the customers God has given us and works to serve them effectively, we will survive this economic downturn, and I believe that we will grow again. Our CLC stores have recognized that serving urban communities is a part of our DNA—serving the academic/seminary community is not. As Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, advocates, we must focus on our “one thing” that makes us special. (I guess that goes with the specialty store category our stores are a part of.) I love the idea of being a place that a smaller group of people LOVE to come to rather than a place that lots of people HAVE to go to.
6. Sponsor events that matter. Events are the lifeblood of effective Christian retail stores. Yes, I did say that. They are THE proven method for driving traffic and bringing people back to your stores again and again. Over the years we have done many events and have tried to stretch our creative muscles. Some of these events were more successful than others. Customers today are very busy people who do not have time to attend just “any kind” of event anymore. Our events must be meaningful and targeted. Consider some of the following:
- Kids’ reading times—to help weary moms who need a break—and new resources for their energetic toddlers to be blessed by
- Bible reference workshops for people who are not sure how to study the Bible and the tools available to them
- Sunday school and VBS workshops with NEW ideas for teachers to consider
- Gatekeeper Breakfasts for Administrative Professionals in the church who often make buying decisions and are not often appreciated for all they do
7. Empower your customers to be altruistic. People really do want to give back and make a difference with their lives. What better place to do that than in our stores? Try any of the following ideas to get started:
- Do a used Christian book drive to collect books for prisoners or Christians in your community who cannot afford to purchase books at full retail, then have a celebration event to thank those who gave.
- Do a Bible Trade-In Trade-Up Sale—offer 25% off to anyone who brings in their old Bible and buys a new one one. Consider offering a free Bible imprint to make the Bible that much more personal and to let the customer know who you will be giving their old Bible to, e.g. prisoners, people in third-world countries, etc.
- Be a World Vision sponsor location.
- Get Involved with Samaritan’s Purse’s “Operation Christmas Child” program or an Angel Tree project.
8. Know your books. This may sound obvious, but it is not that simple. Our customers trust us to do an effective job in selecting and recommending books that they want and need to read. Too often we get bogged down in the doing of Christian retail to even read the books ourselves. This is a key reason, I believe, that we have lost some of our core customers who have depended on us for trusted recommendations over the years. We must hire “book people” and be “book people” if we are to run thriving bookstores. With all the blog sites and book reviews on line, we have no excuse. At least we can agree to read these and have a general idea about key titles. In the end, though, there is no substitute for the regular discipline (and joy) of reading books from cover to cover on a regular basis.
9. Don’t give up on music (yet). This may be my most controversial recommendation yet. With the plummeting of overall music sales, it would be easy to assume that music is no longer relevant or important in the future of Christian retail stores. I did some research in our stores recently and discovered, to my amazement, that music makes up 12% of our sales and is still larger than our card and gift sales. That may not be true in every store and may be a unique reality in an urban setting, but we have not abandoned music yet. Instead, we have introduced CD-track burning onsite and continue to host instore music events with local, regional and national artists (although not as often as before). As long as we have a viable music platform to sell, we will continue to do so, as music reaches people in a deep and different way than books alone.
10. Ministry must come before money. Note I did not say that ministry must be done instead of business. We must do our business with excellence or we will not have a ministry to do. I, however, would like to turn that commonly quoted statement around and say the opposite as well. If we do not foster relational ministry in our stores, we will not have real Christian businesses. That may not be a true statement if measured in dollars and cents only; but from an eternal perspective, a Christian retail store without a heart of ministry is a hollow and possibly even dangerous thing indeed. It has always amazed me in CLC how focusing on ministry has economic byproducts as well. People who are ministered to and whose lives have been changed as a result will often become our best customers.