NEWS FEATURE: Spiritual searches fuel growth of Christian retailing

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

ORLANDO, Fla. _ Sales are booming for America’s Christian retailers in a growth trend that promises to continue into the next century.

Sales should be about $3 billion this year with research suggesting they will keep mounting, says Bill Anderson, president of CBA, the nation’s top Christian retailing association.”The future is where we are going to make our greatest impact. Our best days are ahead of us,”said Anderson of Colorado Springs, Colo., noting sales are up 25 percent in the last two years.

Anderson attributed the increase to aging baby boomers looking for spiritual meaning and cultural trends including the widespread religious searching among youth following high school shootings this spring in Littleton, Colo., and Conyers, Ga.

When Anderson’s association met here in mid-July, it attracted record numbers of participants, including 489 firms that displayed their wares across 300,000 square feet of exhibit space. On hand were 110 first-time exhibitors and more than 14,000 attendees for the annual meeting. They turned out to view Christian books, videos, music, jewelry, computer software and other items.

Booths ranged from light-and-sound-filled displays by Christian giants including Thomas Nelson Publishers of Nashville, Tenn., to smaller displays like the nautical-themed exhibit mounted by Maggie and Fred Kinney, who run a small publishing and book distribution company from their dining room in Coppell, Texas, a Dallas suburb.

The Kinneys founded their company in 1990 with a lot of determination and $60,000 of capital supplied by an investor. They specialize in titles written by pastors. Maggie Kinney devotes hours to helping pulpit experts turn sermons and speeches into readable works. Books with patriotic themes are their specialty with their top seller being”America’s God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations”(Fame Publishing), which sells for $19.99. It features 2,100 quotes from famous Americans from Benjamin Franklin to Charles Colson.

The Kinneys do about $100,000 in business annually. Maggie works full-time for Fame while Fred keeps his job teaching math at a Christian high school.

Their modest success is no mean feat in today’s fast-paced Christian marketplace where competition is high. Chain stores are buying up independents. Savvy Christians with retail and direct mail experience are leaving secular stores to start their own companies. To compete, some small stores are joining national confederations.

Industry leaders estimate it takes $100,000 in inventory and $100,000 in fixtures to start a major Christian retail outlet or bookstore today. To be truly viable, a store needs to do $500,000 in sales its first year, Anderson said.

Not too long ago such stores were largely small-time operations. Michael Wall, owner of Bible Bookstore and Solid Rock Music in Billings, Mont., which his parents founded, remembers the company started as a book table at a dry cleaner’s establishment.”It’s changed a lot from a kind of mom-and-pop operation to a very intentional, focused kind of store,”Wall said.

Like its entrepreneurs, Christian retailing is a better-educated industry. Publishers and retailers talk about needing to make better use of technology including the Internet and sophisticated marketing and advertising.

Formerly known as the Christian Booksellers Association, CBA changed its name in 1996, partly in deference to the explosion of related retail items. Today those range from inspirational”Veggie Tales”Valentines for pint-size fans of the popular children’s video series to wristwatches with Bible verses so business people can witness to their co-workers.

The audience for such products is wider than evangelical Protestants, the group that pioneered Christian bookstores and founded the CBA in Chicago in 1949. Catholic stores today comprise 5 percent of CBA’s 2,800 Christian stores.

In addition, more Christian books and products are exhibiting the”crossover”potential of best-selling contemporary Christian singers such as Amy Grant, whose records sell well to believers and nonbelievers. Christian retailers and publishers are finding an increased demand for their wares in secular markets frequented by spiritual seekers who may or may not have a church affiliation. For example, the secular chain Books-a-Million started courting such buyers in 1998, opening its first Testaments Shoppe,”a store-within-a-store.” Christian retailers also find that not all their customers are frequent churchgoers.”We’re still experiencing double-digit growth,”said Bev Channel, owner of Wellspring, a bookstore in Des Moines, Iowa.”A lot of people would not yet darken the door of a church but they will come into a Christian bookstore.” Retailers such as Channel and Christian publishers are challenged by the broad interest in”spirituality”because they must reach out to the unchurched crowd and carry a diverse mix of religious wares.”Spirituality is such a general buzzword,”said Tom Mockabee of Grand Rapids, Mich., senior vice president and publisher of Zondervan, the nation’s second-largest Christian publisher.”That is emerging everywhere. I’m responsible for Bibles and children’s products at Zondervan. They’re being sold in Kmarts and Wal-Marts today. There is a hunger and a need for tranquillity.” AMB END HOLMES

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