The popularity of Christian bestselling books such as The Prayer of Jabez and The Purpose-Driven Life has been a double-edged sword for Christian booksellers. Crossover successes raised awareness of Christian books. But when discount retailers and major bookstores began stocking bestselling Christian books, many buyers started driving past the local Christian bookstore in the strip mall and headed for Wal-Mart, Borders, or logged onto online retailers.
"We've got a little bit of a Catch-22 here," says Bill Anderson, president and CEO of CBA, the association for Christian retailers. "We used to complain that not enough people knew that Christian books existed. As more people have become aware, America's retailers want to sell it, and that has increased our competition." On some titles, independent Christian stores and even chains sell bestsellers for twice as much as Wal-Mart.
Now, CBA is fighting back. It launched an awareness campaign in April, which included television ads on the Christian Broadcasting Network and encouraged Christians to shop at Christian retail stores.
Hundreds of Christian retailers have closed their doors in recent years. Of 271 Christian retail store closings last year, 21 were CBA member stores. This dropped its count to 2,407 stores, including some store openings this year. Between 2000 and 2002, while the general Christian product market grew by $200 million, business at Christian stores shrank by $100 million.
"The year 2001 was a watershed year," Anderson said. "Jabez was the number-one [selling book] in the whole world, Desecration was number two, and the number-four bestselling book was [Bruce] Wilkinson's Secrets of the Vine. That success caught the attention of New York publishers, retailers, and consumers."
Those who shop at secular retailers hoping for lower prices will likely find non-Christian books alongside Christian ones, said Chris Rodgers, vice president of merchandising at LifeWay Christian Stores, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. "Customers should be able to trust what they find on the shelves of a CBA store as orthodox Christianity."
Scott Macdonald, president of Lemstone Christian Stores, agreed. "Our customers are looking for a safe place to shop."
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For a tawdry tale about Christian booksellers, see: Romance genre gets a bit godly | Chick-lit fiction makes play for Christian readers. (New York Times, via Indianapolis Star, Oct. 4, 2004)
Other news stories about the plight of Christian retailing:
It's Davids vs. Goliaths in Christian retail struggle | The Christian retail industry is a growing business with more than $4 billion in sales annually, but independent stores are losing their share of the pie. (Detroit News, October 10, 2004)
Christian bookstores fighting to preserve their niche | Market share steadily shifting in favor of secular retailers (Knoxville News Sentinel, Tenn. Sept. 23, 2004)
Bringing in the sheep | SLO's The Parable Group retools marketing to recapture customers who have strayed to big-box bookstores (San Luis Obispo Tribune, Calif. Sep 15, 2004)
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