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.

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