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BY Joseph Pronechen
STAMFORD, Conn.—In an effort to attract teens and young adults, a number of Christian book outlets have been updating the look of their stores. They've expanded their music sections and added clothing. Taking a page from major secular chains, a handful have even put in coffee bars.
Some of their Catholic counterparts are also dressing up their wares. In San Jose, Calif., Chris and Margaret Metcalf remodeled their large Ave Maria Community Book Center 18 months ago. Chris Metcalf noted that a number of Protestant stores have shown a 20% boost in business “after a facelift,” but added that so far his shop hasn't shown a marked increase.
Others have considered moving with the latest marketing trends but have yet to act. With 12,000 square feet in his Havertown, Pa., St. Jude Shop, the flagship of six stores family-owned more than 30 years, Louis DiCocco thinks coffee bars are “an excellent concept as a place to meet and share ideas.” He may implement them into his stores somewhere down the road, he says.
But some stores have little time for the latest trends in retail marketing. “It depends on what you want to achieve,” says Jacqueline O'Connor, of O'Connor Church Goods in San Diego. At more than 20,000 square feet, and a city block long, O'Connor's, begun 62 years ago, ranks as a veritable Catholic superstore.
Although O'Connor sees coffee bars as fine for secular bookstores, she points out that “you don't go there for a traditional religious experience.”
“We don't want our store to be trendy. True religion is based on tradition, and we want to go with that tradition. Boutiques are wonderful, but that interrupts who we are,” she adds.
The identity of Catholic stores varies from Protestant counterparts, according to Metcalf. He sees “a much different set of circumstances,” with Christian stores that are more open to the latest marketing tools to attract customers. Part of the reason is because most stores are cross-denominational, with very little specific Church affiliation. They tend to take their cues from secular retailers when setting up shop.
Literature from the CBA (formerly, the Christian Booksellers Association) says that “Christian retailers have to employ every legitimate technique and technological advantage” now because of increasing competition from secular retailers carrying CBA products. Catholic stores, on the other hand, have close ties to the Church, diocese, and even specific parishes, according to Metcalf.
Still, Catholic stores carry music and jewelry that strikes a chord with teens and young adults. “WWJD—What Would Jesus Do—is a theme we find attractive,” says DiCocco, describing the highly popular line of jewelry, cards, and books that “has kids thinking about our Lord in an unusual crisis, a compromising situation.”
Sister Helena Burns FSP, a veteran of Pauline Book and Media stores, describes the need for stores to have a youth corner that includes “music—the No. 1 draw—holy hardware (WWJD jewelry), caps, and T-shirts with Christian messages.” All those things make a store “look cool and inviting.”
Dave Kelly has used music to help introduce youth to Catholic bookstores. When his Nashville-based Lion Communications, the largest distributor of Catholic music worldwide, sponsored a concert in Cleveland, he invited the local Pauline bookstore to set up a display.
He coordinated with Sister Margaret Michael Gillis FSP, who also understands the power of music as a tool to catechize and evangelize youth. She finds once the music draws them in “they're willing to look at the books.”
“Some end up coming to the store for more music,” she says. Though foot traffic into Catholic book shops among the younger set is not nearly as high as it could be, stores are working to increase it.
A small number have installed the latest equipment, including music sampling listening centers. While no hard figures are available, industry estimates put the number of stores with the centers at less than 20%.
Chris Metcalf agrees that personal response can't be replaced by slick marketing tools or strategies aimed at attracting people.
“There's an absolutely noticeable increase in [sales] in almost every case they're used,” says Herb Busi. His Icon Media Group in Nashville, a Catholic-Christian music distributor, has placed the devices in about 70 Catholic stores. “It's really the only way you're going to influence people in that age category.”
Kelly, whose Lion Communications was among the first to introduce the sampler, sees it as a useful marketing tool that doesn't disturb the quiet ambiance many religious retailers attempt to provide for their customers.
How much interior redesigns help business is difficult to gauge. Like many of their secular counterparts, the Daughters of St. Paul, who have 21 stores across the country, provide sitting areas where people can read. It's difficult to determine if the sitting areas draw new customers, Sister Rose Pacette FSP says. But she does observe that they are often in use and make the stores more inviting. “People don't feel rushed,” she says, and “that's what the section was intended to do.”
In the Daughters' Dedham, Mass., store, Sister Pacette says the children's corner has been an especially big draw. Nice carpets and chairs, a VCR, tables, cassettes, and story hours appeal to young parents shopping with their children. A Baby Jesus Birthday Party is so successful that a tent is added to the store to accommodate the more than 200 participants.
But more than atmosphere or trendy perks, the major draw for 18- to 39-year-olds visiting Catholic stores is what retail people call “the product.” In Pauline stores, Sister Gillis sees young adults looking “for ways to deepen their faith, grow spiritually … and answer questions” posed by non-Catholics. Some are returning to the faith, others are looking for books or gifts for marriage or baptism. And when death strikes friends or family, the young adults come seeking books that offer a Catholic approach to understanding the loss.
O'Connor's staff of 15 is encouraged to spend as much time as possible with customers, explains the owner. “We view employees as family,” she says, and “that feeling carries out [to customers].”
Chris Metcalf of San Jose agrees that personal response can't be replaced by slick marketing tools or strategies aimed at attracting people. When customers come in for material to help rediscover the faith, for example, his knowledgeable Catholic staff has solid answers. “It's a nice position to be in because people are coming to you in their time of need,” says Metcalf.
With customers responding to plentiful product and helpful staff, owners of Catholic religious goods stores seem careful about embracing the latest retailing trends to increase customer traffic.
“You can go overboard,” says Sister Burns, although she approves of a number of the new methods pulling people to the Word of God. “But you have to consider how far you're going to go,” and for what reason.
Adds Metcalf: “We want a nice store, not a marketing plan. We're here for ministry.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Conn.