Book Trade – Reconnecting with the Local Church
In a previous post, I touched briefly on the tricky matter of church / retailer engagement. We return to it here to examine this important topic in more depth.
Many shops are struggling to communicate with their church leaders and ministers. An earlier church / retail compact has seemingly broken down as leaders shop around – usually online – driven by ‘best price’ owing to their Churches’ own financial constraints. Retail managers struggle to venture outside of their own premises due to low staffing levels or sometimes, unwillingness. And yet, somehow, retailers must be in touch with their core customer base – the Churches.
Earlier this year, I oversaw a fairly small-scale Christian retailer survey, attempting to draw out the very real concerns that cause such difficulty in the area of contact with their local congregations. Here in order of priority are the main barriers given by retailers for failing to engage with their local church communities and ministers.
The number 1 reason cited in the survey was the Managers’ own lack of time and the overall busyness of their shop, followed closely by:
- Low levels of staff cover and an over-reliance on volunteers
- Lack of interest and support for the bookshop by their local churches
- Ministers opting to order online for reasons of convenience and price
- Stock limitations due to differences in theology across the denominations
- Churches going direct to suppliers owing to better terms on offer
- Ministers and leaders themselves too busy to visit their local shop
- A fear of the unknown – the concern of how best to approach a church leader
Do any of these reasons resonate with you? If so, how can you manage this aspect of trade more positively? One thing is certain; we must not sit back, throw up our hands in despair or give up. Other retailers’ experience shows that, whilst it is clearly hard work, it is still possible to build good business links with local churches.
35 years ago, when I first started in bookselling, support for their local Christian bookshop by the surrounding churches was unquestioned. It was a given. The churches themselves saw the bookshop as the partner in their own local mission. Support was therefore an imperative. The success of my then small community shop in rural Gloucestershire was largely down to the custom generated by their weekly bookstalls and regular bulk sales.
I was hugely favoured from the beginning by that indomitable champion of the Church Bookstall, Beryl Goodland at the local Baptist Church in Gorsley. Lion Publishing was just getting underway and Beryl was at the heart of the book scene at that time. I’m quite sure that without her dogged support for me personally and for the shop, it would not have enjoyed the kick-start that it did. This then-large congregation was the closest I think I ever got to working with a mega-church! Beryl was the best advocate anyone could have had for selling books via the Church. I realise now just how fortunate we were to have had such impressive support.
This point underlines the importance of having a ‘Champion’ on board in each church for your shop, and in most cases it’s usually not the minister. One key is to seek out and identify those champions in each congregation and start to work with them. Keep close to them, make them feel special and ensure you look after them well.
Church support for the local bookshop is no longer as clear cut as it once was. Churches themselves are struggling and having to shop around for best value. Ministers and leaders are pushed for time and can no longer provide the link and support that is the lifeblood of the local shop. Bookshop staff have themselves lost out by not always realising just how much the scene has changed – and they have largely failed to change with it. Many of us appear to have lost the art, desire and capability to get out into the community to network and connect with churches. Times have indeed changed and the church / shop compact as described above is no longer in place … or is it?
Some would argue that the link is most certainly still there but that it’s just different. Partly it’s down to education – on both sides. Churches need to be helped to understand and value their local resource centre and shops need to understand the new market reality and the very real pressures on church leaders. Partly it’s down to societal change; 30 years ago the internet did not exist and mail order was a poor second option to the shop. Churches themselves valued books and resources in a way that they perhaps do not now. Leaders would recommend books during their sermons and from the pulpit, far more often than appears to be the case nowadays. Are Christians reading as much anyway and how do churches decide what is best for them to study in a time of so many competing voices? Many congregations now have access to the technology and the wherewithal to produce their own materials, thus bypassing both publishers and booksellers. This change has particularly impacted and disrupted the daily reading notes and home group study market.
Rather than bemoaning the situation, retailers have to change. We simply must become more proactive in making contact with local ministries. New ways of engaging with local congregations must be found in order to introduce resources into their spiritual lives. It remains a truism that personal recommendation continues to be the single best way of selling a book to a customer – and in this case to a whole church.
Happily, there are a number of exciting initiatives taking place around the country that do just that. It takes effort, time and, I suspect, will demand ever more change to the way the shop is both staffed and operated.
Nigel Cope of the Christian Book Centre in Preston, quoted in the preview issue of Together magazine, estimated that around 12% of his business now came from outside of the shop. His one single piece of advice was “Don’t wait for people to come into your shop, go out and find them and serve them where they are“. Nationally, CLC Bookshops are more and more committed to running external events and have ramped up their own activity in this area recently.
I recently spent time with Bob and Sandie Clark at the Christian Resource Centre in Eastbourne, runners up in this year’s ‘Small Independent Retailer of the Year’ award. In the two years the Clarks have been involved, the business has been turned around and turnover is slowly on the rise, largely due to a stated policy of spending time with ministers outside of the shop. Bob, an experienced and seasoned publisher’s representative, is specifically tasked with building up these external relationships – and clearly has the skill-set to do this extremely well.
CRC is part of Churches Together in Eastbourne but when the Clarkes commenced in 2011, there were active relationships with just two churches. Bob diarises each Thursday for networking with church leaders, fitting in five to six visits during the day. Using his earlier repping model, he views his role as relating, as well as selling, to churches.
The Book Box Scheme is CRC’s main promotional thrust. This scheme is based on one pioneered by Pam Brittle at Choice Words, Newton Abbot. Book boxes are supplied lidded and the selected product is all provided on a see-safe basis. Some boxes are brought back to CRC by the church for resupply; others, Bob will replenish himself on a subsequent visit. CRC now have around 18 churches in the scheme – and it’s growing – with the goal to reach 50 boxes by this Christmas.
They also operate the Big Church Read introducing one title per month to each of their partner churches. These schemes work via a Church Champion and not through the minister or leader, although permission is always sought first. Making the contacts and building relationships takes up a good deal of Bob’s time and he says that it still remains a challenge and a struggle to get support from the local church community.
So what are the main keys to success in engaging with churches?
(1) Tenacity, patience and perseverance – plus a solid and workable game plan!
(2) Finding a local ‘resource champion’ in each congregation to work with you. Make sure you get the minister’s agreement first but accept that it may not make sense to work solely with the minister as he may wish to delegate the role to someone you both trust.
(3) Network – network – network. If necessary, alter the way you operate the shop in order to find the time to do so. For example, would shutting the shop for one day or one morning or an afternoon a week or month bring more benefit to your trade than simply staying open on an otherwise dead day?
(4) Research your locality thoroughly and recommend relevant resources to your constituency in a positive, pleasant and non-demanding way.
(5) Help your local ministers to keep up to date with what’s new and what’s selling in the wider overall context. So many leaders are notoriously out of date in their own reading and book / resource knowledge.
(6) And please … do not use the lack of time or staff as an excuse to do nothing. That way you may be sleep-walking to disaster. Find a way. Be creative. The local churches do not owe you a living – you still have to work for it!
We’d love to hear from you on this subject. Send in your own thoughts and the practical ways in which you have sought to address this area of your work. We’ll then share your wisdom with others through the pages of Together. May God bless you in all aspects of your shop’s ministry.
This article was written in mid May 2013 for Together Magazine (June – July 2013)