Why Hasn't Boom in Religious Merchandise Helped Retailers?

Chuck Wallington was thrilled when a new generation of religious books kick-started the Christian products industry in the late 1990s. But the booming interest in religion has been a mixed blessing for the bottom line at the Christian retail store he's run for 30 years.

"We've seen a lot of new faces because of the increased awareness of the products -- we're adding a couple hundred new customers a month to our frequent-buyer program. But at the same time we're wondering where some of the old ones have gone, because our overall foot traffic is down," he said.

Wallington runs Christian Supply, a Spartanburg, S.C., business started by his parents in 1954, that has sold everything from church supplies like pews and hymnals to T-shirts proclaiming "Satan Is a Nerd." It is one of about 2,500 Christian stores scattered around the country, roughly 75 percent of which are independently owned.

In the past decade the U.S. retail industry has seen a surge in the number of consumers buying religious products, with much of that buying centered in the Christian market. But they're not necessarily shopping at long-time retailers like Christian Supply. In fact, Wallington said sales have actually slipped in the past two years.

The boom has proved a double-edged sword for many Christian retailers. As the popularity of Christian products has increased, so has the number of outlets that sell them. Formerly a niche market made up of specialty stores like Christian Supply, the booming demand now puts independent retailers in direct competition with industry Goliaths like Wal-Mart, Target and Borders.

"Some of our old clients used us for 100 percent of their purchases, but now because of convenience they're picking things up off the shelves in a Wal-Mart or Target," Wallington said.

Best-Sellers Lead the Way

Led by the 12-novel, Christian-themed "Left Behind" series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins and Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life," religious books have littered best-seller lists in the past decade and pushed awareness of Christian products beyond the traditional church-going base. The 2004 release of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" further tapped into the public intrigue, and last year's presidential election saw both candidates discussing their personal religious views in depth.

The interest has pushed religious books, music, greeting cards, children's toys and even jewelry into the mainstream.

"Religious products have been popularized in the last three to four years and gone into pop areas that may be new to the market," said Don Montuori, editor of a report on the U.S. religious product industry by MarketResearch.com. "In the mass market they aren't being segregated on aisles they way they had been in the past -- they're getting out of the 'Christian section ghetto.' "

MarketResearch estimated the retail market for religious products at about $7 billion in 2004, a number big enough for the retail giants to take notice. Wal-Mart alone now stocks 550 inspirational or religious music titles and more than 1,200 inspirational book titles company-wide. Other products, most notably religious-themed jewelry, have seen a pick-up as well, according to Wal-Mart spokeswoman Karen Burk.

Some smaller businesses were unable to keep pace with their giant competitors. The Christian Bookseller's Association, the trade association for Christian product suppliers and retailers, noted that 288 of its roughly 2,300 member stores went out of business in 2004, some no doubt forced out by increased competition

"It's a good news-bad news type of situation. Now that people are aware of the interest in these products, the competition has never been stiffer, and the market has become a lot more complex and more organized," said CBA President Bill Anderson

He noted that overall the organization saw a net gain of 100 stores as new outlets opened up to take advantage of the growing demand.

"Some stores rose to the occasion, and some definitely did not. There's no doubt it's caused us to lose some stores, but those who do survive are becoming better retailers," he said.

Finding a Way to Beat the Behemoths

For smaller, independent stores, the best-selling books and music were often not the major moneymakers, but they were an important drawing card.

"The music and books were really more a traffic builder than a bottom-line contributor. But retail is about getting people in the store, so they've got to find a way to keep doing that," said industry consultant Jim Seybert.

One way Christian stores have tried to differentiate themselves is to offer unique items not available at the mass-merchandiser rivals. In addition to stocking "Left Behind" books and "Passion" DVDs, many are loading up on things like framed Christian art, jewelry and greeting cards with specific religious themes or symbols.

While a Wal-Mart or Hallmark store may offer a greeting card with a spiritual message, Christian retailers sell cards or art with specific Bible verses inscribed. Christian stores are also heavy on Veggie Tales merchandise -- children's books, videos and music featuring a group of vegetable cartoon characters who offer religious and moral lessons.

The CBA has helped by a running an ad campaign for member retailers on the Christian Broadcasting Network and ABC Family Channel. Anderson said the campaign led to a 200 percent to 300 percent increase in phone calls for some of the local merchants.

Playing the Language Game

There are keys to successfully marketing religious products to a broad audience. In the past, when Christian stores relied almost exclusively on devout Christians for their customer base, no Bible-themed advertisement was too strong. But in a world where it's imperative to lure in customers who could just as easily shop at Wal-Mart, retailers have been more careful with language.

"There are trigger words like 'prayer,' 'blessing' and 'spirit' that might sound more like a Sunday school lesson than a message that would appeal to a mass market audience," Seybert said.

That can pose a dilemma for independent retailers like Wallington, who often consider their stores equal parts ministry and business. The fall-off at Christian Supply has been minor compared to stores who have seen sales totals drop 15 percent to 20 percent in the past several years, Wallington said. If they hope to stay in business, they'll find a way to balance the two.

"The challenge is that now you've got to wear two hats. It's not just a ministry and it's not just a business -- it's a hybrid. And you want to survive you've really got learn how to do both," he said.