The Christian bookshop has been a feature of British church life for the last four decades, transforming themselves from the ‘Bible shops’ of the 1960s (complete with rainbow guitar straps and fish badge Bible covers) into the multimedia havens of the modern city centre ‘Christian retail outlets’. But for how much longer?
Who, what, where…?
There are around 700 Christian bookshops in the UK – at least one in most towns and cities. However, this figure includes everything from very small shops, and even market stalls, which may only be open for a few days each week, through to what could be described as mini department stores of several thousand square feet. Many of the top stores are owned by a small group of chains, including Wesley Owen, Christian Literature Crusade, SPCK and St Andrews. However, all these shops only supply a very small customer base. It is an oft-quoted estimate that only one in 10 churchgoers will enter a Christian bookstore in any given year, which if we assume a church attendance of around 3.7 million, this is only about 370,000 customers.(Religious Trends 3 edited by Peter Brierley - published by Christian Research).
However, the figures really don’t tell the whole story. While on holiday in a small Welsh town my wife and I spotted a small Christian bookstore. The shop was probably no bigger than 20 feet by 20 feet, with books piled in to fit into the small space – there was no music playing, television screens, clever merchandising or trendy shop fittings. The couple had retired and decided to spend their retirement running this shop (with no, or little, pay I presume), tying to supply books to a small, but broad, church-going population. That this shop survives is more down to the dedication of the owners than anything else, and I suspect such a pattern is repeated in many shops across the UK, which are largely taken for granted by local believers.
Independents versus chains?
What the future holds for the Christian bookstore is unclear. Some shops are transforming themselves with modern shopfitting, good quality promotional material, multimedia screens and CD listening posts; others are struggling to find enough money to pay a new coat of paint every five years. With some notable exceptions, it is generally the shops that are part of a larger chain which have been at the head of this change.
Malcolm Stockdale is chief executive of Wesley Owen, the largest chain of Christian bookshops, with 40 branches around the UK. Their flagship branch in Glasgow is a 5,000 sq ft city centre outlet with a full restaurant, and feels more like a department store with the different departments for Bibles, music, children etc. Malcolm insists that Wesley Owen don’t use their position to push for their own advantage, “The aim of the charity we belong to, Send the Light Ltd (STL), is for the ‘distribution of Christian literature’. Unlike any other chain we do allow other Christian bookshops to be part of our marketing, so that any independent retailer can buy any offer we have in Wesley Owen. This means that, providing they buy from STL, they can look and feel as we do as a chain. Because we see it as a mission, by helping shops other than Wesley Owen with marketing, point of sale material and offers, we are fulfilling our own mission statement to ‘advance the Christian faith through retailing’.”
However, this may not be a view shared by all independent retailers. Geoff Wallace runs the successful independent bookstore Maranatha Christian Bookshop in Uxbridge. He says, “[Compared to the multiple retailer] we do not have the buying power or clout to compete with some of the ‘cut prices’ that chains offer nor do we have the centralised mail order facilities and financial services.” Despite this he does see the advantage of his independence, “I decide what I want to stock and I can make immediate decisions as a manager. I can obtain products from a wide range of suppliers including the US. We often get comments about the broad range of stock that we carry as well as cards from specialist smaller suppliers.”
This tension has been an ongoing discussion within the Christian retail trade for a number of years. The mainstream Booksellers Association run a specific trade body for Christian retailers, the Christian Booksellers Group (BA-CBG) which is perceived as the main trade body representing retailers.
Mark Clifford, current joint chairman of the BA-CBG adopts a reconciliatory tone, “CBG does not view the chains as a threat, but rather seeks to involve them in the overall trade as key players. [All the main chains] are all represented in significant capacities on the CBG committee. I believe that this has ensured that STL, for example, is perceived as more of a help than a threat to independent shops - thus the trade as a whole is pulling together more effectively than was the case a few years ago.”
Despite this, Mark identifies the trend to be moving away from small independent shops, “BA-CBG has certainly seen a trend for smaller independents to either go out of business or be taken over by one of the chains. I expect this will continue - it is a fact of life in an increasingly competitive market. I don’t think this is as emotive an issue as it was.”
However, Norman Nibloe, owner of the independent store, Tonbridge Christian Book Centre and director of the annual Christian retail trade event, the Christian Booksellers Convention, is positive. “The feeling is that although there are fewer truly independent retailers, those that are there, are thriving.”
The question for you and me is how this affects us – presuming we currently shop at Christian bookstores. Many will argue that a chain can provide a wider stock range, whereas others will see the independent as having more freedom to stock less popular titles. Malcolm Stockdale points out that Wesley Owen try to steer a middle way on this. “We use what I like to call the ‘Tesco’ concept in the way we run the stores. Tesco have their ‘Tesco Extra’ which is their big stores which have a wide range of products and different zones that you walk through; this comes down all the way to the small outlet on the Petrol Station forecourt, which obviously has a far more defined range of merchandise. This is what we need to create in the Christian retail market. When you only have 600 sq ft you can’t stock the same range as you can in 5,000 sq ft, so you have to actually look at what customers are buying, and we will make sure we stock the ‘top 10’ in each category, to give a real flavour of what is available.”
It is commonly viewed within the bookshop trade that direct mail, book clubs and, most significantly, the Internet have affected retail sales in shops. The number of websites selling Christian products has grown over the last few years with everyone from large chains such as Wesley Owen through to small independents all offering an ecommerce option to consumers.
Norman Nibloe takes a positive view of these developments, “We have benefited, because we use all retail ‘opportunities’ and Internet/mail order is one of them.” This approach is echoed by Malcolm Stockdale, “Our Internet sales have increased over the last few years. The web site was the equivalent of a small store, in terms of sales, two years ago; a medium store a year ago; and a large store now. We do expect this to continue to grow as we launch the new web site next year. It provides opportunity to reach customers who may not have the time or the inclination to go into a Christian bookstore, but they do have the cash to spend.”
Mark Clifford from BA-CBG is more cautious. “The Internet is now seen as a fact of life, opening up wider markets - it is book clubs receiving offers from suppliers that are not open to the shops which are seen as the major threat at present to traditional trading patterns.”
This view is shared by Geoff Wallace, who argues for the benefits of the traditional shop. “It’s difficult when the publisher who supplies us, undercuts us in their direct marketing. In America the publishers have a policy to drive sales into the shops because that is where the customer has the greatest choice of product as well as the personal service and experience of the sales staff. You can order a book on the Internet but it can’t tell you if there is a more appropriate one available, nor can it help when a customer wants a listening ear.”
Music and magazines
Products other than books are now forming an increasing part of the sales revenue for retailers, with music making the most impact. Sales of praise and worship albums have caused many retailers to look again at the way they display and sell music.
Geoff Wallace explains their importance, “Music is an essential part of our stock and not an ‘extra’. Over the lifetime of the shop music has played a major part in encouraging spiritual growth through the worship songs that have been recorded.”
“Music is significant, but not significant enough for me,” says Malcolm Stockdale. “It’s an area which we need to get customers behind. We sell plenty of ‘praise and worship’ music, but how do you get the younger people in? It may be something to do with the price of CDs – if they are used to paying £9.97 at Tesco and Asda for mainstream chart music it can seem expensive to buy a new Christian album. Obviously this is only for the top 40 albums, and it is difficult in the Christian market as no artist sells the volume needed to give this price.”
As for magazines, Malcolm considers they are “a ‘lost jewel’. We have done offers on magazines like Christianity+Renewal, and we are open to ways of helping other ministries, but I’m not sure what is the best way of increasing magazine sales.”
While sales of Christianity+Renewal are strong, the circulation of most magazines and periodicals are in decline. However “magazines do bring in a few regulars, and can help profile certain books or artists,” adds Norman Nibloe.
So what does the future hold for Christian retailing in the UK? Phil Whittall, editor of the trade publication Christian Marketplace says, “Christian retailing faces a challenging future but there are signs of hope. Positively, it is an industry that is committed to its mission and its people, which counts for a lot. What it is short of is investment to equip it for the High Street battle. But the biggest challenge for retailers and publishers alike is to persuade the majority of churchgoers to buy its products.
Geoff Wallace is hopeful “The country needs strategically placed Christian book and resource centres where customers (both Christian and enquirers) can see a wide range of positive Christian material that is available, as well as staff who are knowledgeable and who can point out items that will help their spiritual journey.”
Malcolm Stockdale is blunt and to the point; “Christians need to recognise that if they want Christian bookshops on the High Street they need to support them by visiting them and buying products from the shop. Otherwise, pretty soon rates are going to be so prohibitive that there won’t be a Christian presence there.”