Adapting a Christian niche

The saying goes that when God closes a door, he opens a window.

So with the Borders bookstore chain – the nation’s second-largest – closing its stores, Christian retailers see opportunity.

Whether the bookstores can fit through that window remains to be seen.

Seventy percent of Christian retailers reported flat or declining sales last year, with overall sales dropping 3 percent, according to the Christian retail association CBA. That explains why Christian booksellers, marketing agencies and the 1,200-member CBA are seeing potential in Borders’ demise.

After Borders announced its liquidation in July, Colorado Springs, Colo.-based CBA sent an alert to member stores: “Post Borders Growth Strategy: As Borders Shuts its Doors, Christian Booksellers Should Open Theirs Wider.”

In Charlotte, bookstore closings not only include Borders but a major Christian outlet – New Creation Christian Books in Matthews closed this summer.

That explains why Jim Busby, who has managed Cokesbury books on Tyvola Road for 33 years, calls Borders’ departure as much a cautionary tale as an opportunity for new business. He worries if Cokesbury, which has traditionally focused on the religious professional, is positioned to benefit.

Factors that bled Borders – online sales, changing reading habits accelerated by lifestyle changes and technological advances, and the relentless competitive threat from Wal-Mart and other retailers – affect Christian bookstores, too.

“Our business, knock on wood, has been pretty stable. It’s not exactly what we hope for, but it hasn’t gone away,” Busby says. “People still want to see the books. They want to hold them.

“…We’ll continue to reach out to that market, make them better aware in any way we can to what we have. I wish we had more advertising dollars, and I regret that we don’t.”

The letter from CBA offered suggestions for retailers including discounts for customers with Borders loyalty cards and trying to lure former Borders customers into Christian stores.

“It is always sad when a bookstore that makes Christian materials available to the public can no longer do that,” said Curtis Riskey, CBA executive director. “However, the chain’s demise does create more opportunities for independent local Christian stores to fill the gap.”

Shepherd’s Fold Book Store, which has operated across the street from Winthrop University in Rock Hill for 35 years, didn’t need Borders’ closing to start doing things differently.

Sales there started falling in 2008, says Jason Thurman, who manages the store’s books and Bible departments. Changes started almost immediately.

“One of the problems you have to figure out is how to meet the needs of your customers in different ways,” says Thurman, who calls Wal-Mart his biggest competitor. “We can’t continue doing things the way we have always done them. The world, the economy and what people are buying is changing.”

Adapting with the times

Last month, the Munce Group, an agency in Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., that provides marketing and business solutions for 498 independently owned Christian bookstores, analyzed where the remaining Borders stores were located against a map of Munce-affiliated stores in those markets.

The Parable Group in San Luis Obispo, Calif., which provides marketing for 109 Christian retailers, including 40 Parable franchise stores, is doing more online advertising to attract customers, said CEO Steve Potratz. Some stores are offering more gifts, and by year’s end, e-books to accommodate demand.

Christian retailers have experienced immense upheaval the past seven or eight years competing with Amazon, e-books and big box retailers, said Andy Butcher, editor for Christian Retailing magazine in Lake Mary, Fla. One advantage that can help them stay alive is serving a niche audience that shares the same passionate beliefs.

Neither of the Charlotte-area bookstores have seen any increase in traffic since Borders began bowing out.

‘There’s still a market’

Cokesbury and Shepherd’s Fold have branched out into Christian cards and gifts. Shepherd’s Fold is delving more into e-books. The challenge, Thurman says, is bringing store customers into the future, without scaring them off.

“Our customers are slower to adapt to current technology,” Thurman says. “It’s more a matter of pulling, not pushing.”

The magic of the small bookstore can still take place. Busby says Cokesbury’s new Common English Bible, one of the first to give women a role in the translation, has been selling “pretty good.”

In Rock Hill, word-of-mouth has fueled a big run on “Jesus Calling,” by Sarah Young.

“There’s still a market when someone finds a good book that touches their lives and they want to buy it and give it to someone else,” Thurman says, adding that his store has sold almost 1,000 copies of Young’s book over the past four years.

“I’ve got people who have given away 10 or 15 copies. They come in and buy stacks of them and just give them away.”

Staff Writer Michael Gordon contributed.

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