Back to the Future

One thing is for certain. The world is not what it was and probably never will be again. As much as I long for a full head of hair, that is not likely to happen any time soon; chances are, I will not grow the extra four inches I dreamed about in high school. In the same way, having a Christian bookstore on every corner or in every community is now a thing of the past in the USA and is not likely to become a reality any time soon. This is also true in many other English speaking western nations of the world,  but is not the case in the rapidly Christianizing global south where Christian bookstores still continue to open at a good pace.

Given that reality, it struck me that those who do survive in the Christian retail world here in the USA need to consider what it will take to stabilize and grow again, even if there are fewer stores doing so. In an attempt to deal with this ever-changing world, many of us tried all the new things that we were coached to do to make our stores more “relevant” and efficient, and yet we continued to lose sales. Whether it was automating, discounting, selling bargain books or installing interactive new displays like Symtio, we were willing to try whatever it took. In doing so, I wonder if we missed some of the principles of successful Christian retail that sustained small mom and pop shops for decades before we came on the scene. Maybe our way forward is to take a couple of steps back.

1.  Customization. I started in Christian retail when we only had one cash register in our store and a microfiche machine to look up products, and that was only fifteen years ago. My, how things have changed. One of the biggest changes in all of our lives was the move toward automated point-of-sale programs and inventory management systems. While I am big fan of technology and all the benefits it can bring, I think that I was naive about some of its downsides. Many store managers (including me) spent precious hours setting up and maintaining these systems in back rooms, which removed us from the reality of the sales floor. The store manager who mentored me in my first year in Christian retail was a dear mature Christian woman who knew books inside and out. She seemed to have more book information stored in her head than any computer could ever produce, and she made sure I learned what she knew—not just how to find books for people, but the right books to recommend in the right circumstances. We were not a self-serve store, but a store that interacted with our customers to produce custom-tailored solutions to their needs.  A return to this kind of customized focus on customer needs—while harnessing the power of technology—is a key to our future.

2.  Community. I did not really understand what an incredible community connecting point the local Christian bookstore could be until I had been working in our store for several months and watched how our customers interacted with each other. I will never forget the day one women walked through our doors and saw a long-lost friend at the other end of the store; she screamed out “Dear Sister . . .” and proceeded to run down the aisle to embrace her for several minutes. They so enjoyed just seeing each other again and catching up on life. As I realized this, it was a huge “Aha” moment for me, and it struck me that designing whatever we were doing to produce more of these opportunities for people was critical. In the following years we developed many aspects of our stores around being a community connector. Somehow that function as a safe haven for people must be at the core of what we do going forward. There were so many people over the years who came simply because it was a place of peace and tranquility for them in the midst of the craziness of their daily lives.

3. Resourcefulness. For some reason, people who shop in Christian bookstores seem to think that the staff knows everything about the local Christian community, churches, the Bible and whatever else they have questions about at the time. This used to exasperate and intimidate me, as I knew I was inadequate to answer all their questions, but it quickly drove me to deeper prayer and research. Most people coming into a Christian bookstore have a vague idea about what they need. CBA has always taught that the best opening question for someone walking through our doors was, “What brought you to our store today?” not the ubiquitous, “May I help you with something?” By employing that tactic, I uncovered many needs over the years and learned to tailor my responses as a result. If we are to be of value in the community, we must once again reassert our stores as places where people can find answers and have needs met. We may not know everything, but we certainly can be experts at a few things—what is new and just arriving in our stores that people have been waiting for, what are the differences between Bible translations, and what books are the most critical in each category. When people know they will have their needs met, they will come again and will tell their friends. They may even be willing to pay full price for a book that you have just recommended.

4.  Knowledge. There is no way we are going to provide solutions for anyone unless we are truly knowledgeable about our community and our products. Early on I realized the value of doing surveys to assess the needs of people walking though our doors. This should be done by every store on a regular basis to gauge the changing needs of their ever changing customer base. So often we employ tactics in our stores without ever doing the research to see if these ideas are needed or wanted by those who shop in our stores. I believe that the most effective retailers are sponges for information and constantly seeking to learn. This involves getting to know the local clergy and the needs of their churches as well as the needs of parachurch ministries that are active in the community. Plan to spend time this year asking more questions and taking more notes than you have ever done before. God will give you the answers you need as you open yourself up to learning. One thing that I have definitely learned over the years is that we cannot effectively sell a product if we do not understand it or, worse, do not believe in its value. Even if I was not quite sure how something worked, like a particular Bible software or hand-held electronic Bible, I was sure to have someone on staff who did and could teach me.

5.  Activity. The biggest challenge most retailers face these days is a lack of traffic in our stores. I believe that a return to a place where there “is always something going on” in our stores is critical to the future. We may not have the ability or the funds to host the mega-Christian author or artist at an in-store event, but we can certainly host a popular local Christian author who will bring a following of their own to the store. Instead of simply setting up a book signing or the even more rare (these days) CD signing, why not host a workshop, book reading or musical performance? Historically, people are far more likely to buy a CD when they have heard the music performed live or to buy a book when the author talks about it or reads from it. We must commit to spending our precious resources of time and energy on events that matter and not just things that will fill up the calendar. How many local small group Bible studies or Christian book clubs would like to use your store as a meeting place? Once they begin coming on a regular basis, they may become some of your best customers and advocates in the local community over the long term. One obstacle that I and many store managers face in regard to this issue is the lack of staffing, energy and time to pull all this off. Partnership is the key—find people who will volunteer to help you coordinate and implement these ideas. Certainly you have people you know who would love to be the reader for kids at your weekly reading time or be the emcee for a question-and-answer session with a local author.

As you begin the new year, do not despair. God is the same yesterday, today and forever and is calling us into closer relationship with Him so that in these tough economic times we will be sure to give Him the glory for any success that takes place in our ministries. At the end of the day, we certainly want stores that are not merely transactional but transformational in the lives of our customers. We will see God do great things in our midst as we learn from the past and apply these principles to our futures together.

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