Finding a niche

Christian bookstores plot strategy to compete with big chains as demand for product surges


Amy Umphlett, left, Christi Mize, center, and Julie Teal fill out surveys in front of book posters including The New York Times best-seller "The Purpose-Driven Life," second from left, during the Christian Booksellers Association convention Monday. Christian books such as this and others are crossing over to the mainstream as they achieve best-seller status.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: Thursday, July 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 1, 2004 at 1:11 a.m.
ATLANTA - It was a sign from above that the Christian book industry is changing.
Banners greeting Christian book publishers and store owners at the industry's annual convention this week exclaimed "New York Times Best Seller!" in promoting "The Purpose-Driven Life" and "The Maker's Diet," two Christian books that have successfully crossed over to the mainstream market.
With the popularity of Christian books driving some shoppers to retailers such as Wal-Mart because of deep discounts that some Christian stores can't afford to offer, the 11,000 people attending the meetings will be looking for ways to develop a niche to attract customers. They're also keeping an eye out for the authors who have potential to become best sellers in the mainstream market.
"We're definitely seeing no slowdown and an acceleration in the number of Christian books being published with a lot of splash and media attention, books hitting best-seller lists that we didn't expect to cross over," said Jana Riess, the religion book review editor at Publishers Weekly.
Christian bookstores will never be able to sell as cheaply as Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, Costco or Barnes & Noble, but they have a small advantage over those competitors: customer service and product knowledge, said James Dion, a Chicago-based retail consultant who has worked with the Christian Booksellers Association for several years.
The down side, Dion said, is that many Christian booksellers view their stores first and foremost as a ministry. "They're wonderful ministers but not really good businesspeople."
Better marketing and merchandising is key, said Sherri Litza, owner of New Covenant Christian Supply in LaPorte, Ind. "We have to develop our niche by customer service, customer loyalty and by becoming more efficient in what we do," she said.
Some bookstores are banking on having past books by now-popular authors, such as Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye of "Left Behind" fame, and such mainstays as Charles Colson, C.S. Lewis and theologian Francis Schaefer. Other stores are opting to open on Sundays, when they know their customer base will be out after church services and lunch.
Chuck Wallington, owner of Christian Supply in Spartanburg, S.C., said he's also worked to grow his church supply business, selling communion plates, tithe envelopes, church bulletins and coloring books for Sunday School classes.
"When you connect with the churches, you tend to connect with people in the churches," he said.
Association president Bill Anderson said stores should look at themselves as Christian lifestyle department stores, offering a wealth of titles to choose from and knowledgeable staff.
"They're specialty stores that offer the breadth and depth rather than just cherry picking. They have the full orchard."
As well-known Christian authors and musicians parade through the convention this week, with book signings and special concerts, the industry will be looking for the next hot book or author to break into the mainstream. Bookstore owners and industry experts expect Rick Warren's "Purpose-Driven Life," which has sold more than 16 million copies since its debut in 2002, to continue to sell well.
Other authors expected to do well in the mainstream are fiction writers Ted Dekker and Karen Kingsbury, as well as books on health, diet and exercise following the multimillion sales of "The Maker's Diet."
Christian fiction is expected to grow in popularity with more realistic characters become and edgier story lines.
There's still no sex and cursing, but characters have a beer now and then and there is more violence, attributable to the multimillion-selling "Left Behind," said Riess. The characters don't only exist to spread the gospel, as in the past, and stereotype is changing where books don't always have to have a hospital scene or accident, she said.
"I've noticed a change," said Nikki Dugan, a bookstore employee and artist from Bloomington, Minn. "They seem to be getting a little deeper, a little more complex."
As more mass retailers sell Christian books, Christian bookstore owners hope the atmosphere of their shops will attract buyers.
Wallington said customers have told him they are offended by the religious sections where books on Christianity are next to books on spiritualism and the occult, for example. Others have said they are worried about what their kids may see.
"If you see a Howard Stern book right beside 'Purpose-Driven Life,' it sends a mixed message," he said.

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