After Years of Loss, Only the Strong Christian Stores Are Surviving

Struggling,” challenging,” “difficult”–these are the words used to characterize the current state of Christian retailing. It’s a story that has unfolded over the past 10 to 15 years, mirroring what general-interest indies experienced earlier–hundreds of stores closing and a shrinking cohort of booksellers.

The downward spiral began when, in the early 1990s, the new chain bookstores began to carry Christian books in significant numbers. While once Christian bookstores were the only places these books could be found, suddenly sales were siphoned off as Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million began to stock bestsellers like the Left Behind series and Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life, as well as popular genres like prairie romances. Wal-Mart, Costco, and Sam’s Club also got into the act, selling top titles at prices Christian specialty stores couldn’t match. It was great news for publishers, but a death knell for many stores.
Another body blow was the loss of the music segment of their business to digital downloads. Music once brought in a significant percentage of the revenue at the average Christian store, with some having up to 50% of their inventory in music. When those sales went away, so did many stores.
In 2007 CBA claimed 2,400 members (though only 1,600 of those were independents); this year the number given was 1,100, but CBA has changed its method of counting so each chain is a single member. Off the record, some publishers say there are fewer than 900 viable accounts left.
As the market changed, retailers adopted different strategies and structures. The for-profit, non-denominationally affiliated chain Family Christian Stores launched in 1993, and until 2002 it grew primarily through acquisitions of independent stores; now it expands by relocating stores and building new ones. Baptist Book Stores (affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention) rebranded as LifeWay Christian Stores in 1998 and broadened its stock. Indies banded together in marketing groups that offer different elements of strength in numbers–branding, a bigger Web presence, catalogue production, and, in the case of the 500-member Munce Marketing Group, old-fashioned, small-scale regional buying shows. The oldest of the marketing groups, the Parable Group, now has 140 independent member stores. In 2008 it acquired Lemstone, the only Christian franchise, and now has 40 franchise stores that carry the Parable name.
CBA itself has downsized–in 2009, Curtis Riskey was named interim executive director (that appointment became permanent in 2010); the organization cut staff and sold its headquarters building in Colorado Springs, Colo. The winter trade show, CBA Expo, was eliminated in 2007, and the summer show, the International Christian Retail Show, has become smaller.
Source: Publishers Weekly | Lynn Garrett 

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