The Fastest Growing Christian Market

Alan Napleton knows about the unique challenges faced when marketing a product with religious content. So he started the Catholic Marketing Network to help Catholic retailers and manufacturers.

Fifteen years ago Alan Napleton was president of CCC of America, a company specializing in animated films for children, with a focus on the lives of saints.

He learned firsthand about the unique challenges faced when marketing a product with religious content and saw just how far behind the curve Catholics were in marketing and distributing faith-based products. He responded by creating the Catholic Marketing Network (CMN) in 1996 to help Catholic retailers and manufacturers. Today, the CMN has a membership of 800 Catholic book and gift stores, mail order and online retailers, and manufacturers and suppliers of Catholic materials.

Register correspondent Tom McDonald spoke to him about the venture.

How was the Catholic Marketing Network formed?

Well, it’s funny, but for two years I tried to get someone else to start it. I talked to several Catholic publishers and other individuals, entities and ministries involved in Catholic distribution. I found there was a lot of support for the idea, but I couldn’t get anyone to take the initiative.

Then something beautiful happened in my life. I have a devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and I believe she sent me a very special gift. We were able to adopt a baby boy from Mexico City, and I saw that as a sign to take the initiative to start the CMN. He turned 14 in October, which is the number of years since we held our first organizational meeting. And we were right about the need for such an organization because it met with immediate success and growth.

What does the Catholic Marketing Network do for its members?

We are primarily a communication liaison between the entities that produce Catholic materials and the Catholic stores and other entities that sell them to the general public. We do this through our annual trade show, print publications and Web-based initiatives. We offer member benefits, such as discounted merchant services and freight programs. When possible, we also try to encourage individuals to frequent their local store and support them through purchases.

However, one of our significant challenges is the fact that Catholic stores struggle financially to keep going. I feel strongly that any time one of these stores closes it is always a loss to the local faith community.

What role do you think Catholic retailers play in our faith?

I think they have played a substantial role in the spiritual lives of many people. When I experienced my own spiritual renewal, one of the first things I did was visit a Catholic store and bought several books on different aspects of our faith. I like to think of these stores as “outposts for evangelization,” and any owner of one of these establishments can relate plenty of stories of how the materials they make available have touched many lives in a very significant way. In nearly all cases, they feel called to open their store primarily as a ministry to help spread the authentic truths of the Church.

Can you tell us a bit about your annual trade show?

We hold our annual trade show the first week in August, and they are not only a lot of fun, but have been a great success. We have an exhibit floor where stores and other wholesale buyers can find a large display of Catholic items that include the latest books, music, religious jewelry, framed art and a variety of other gift items.

We try to make sure there is an appropriate balance between both the business and spiritual aspects of the event, so in addition to the exhibition floor, we always have great Catholic speakers, wonderful inspirational music, and always start the day with holy Mass. We also set up a beautiful Eucharistic chapel for daily adoration. Our shows are usually held on the East Coast, and next year’s event will be held in northern New Jersey, right outside New York City.

Do you see any trends in Catholic retail? Is the number of stores growing, shrinking or holding steady?

Brick and mortar stores are definitely going through a rough time. Like a lot of general market retailers, they are trying to react to the changes of how consumers are purchasing products. Books and music, even somewhat hard-to-find Catholic titles, can usually be found online, and this is taking its toll on sales at these stores. Added to this is the fact that both books and music can be digitalized and downloaded, and more and more people are doing so. It’s never been easy for stores to make it financially, but in the last year or two, we’ve seen more stores close than open.

Offsetting this somewhat is the parish store, where we’ve seen an increase in the number of churches that are operating some kind of bookstore on-site. I think you’ll see the number of parish outlets increase significantly over the next several years.

Have you seen any interesting or impressive products lately?

We see them all the time, and this year was no exception. There are always excellent books coming out on a variety of topics. At this year’s trade show, we had author Joseph Pearce presenting his new title, The Quest for Shakespeare, which puts forth the thesis that Shakespeare was Catholic, and another popular author, Father Donald Calloway, MIC, gave a wonderful talk on his new book about Our Blessed Mother titled Purest of All Lilies.

There are also a lot of positive things going on with films that have a faith or virtue theme. We premiered the feature film Fireproof. The movie has a great theme centered on marriage, and we also viewed two beautiful new drama DVDs from Holy Cross Family Ministries that bring real-life situations into Rosary reflections.

Catholic music is really on a roll, and we heard some of the hottest artists, with performances by recording stars Matt Maher and Sal Solo. We also heard a phenomenal high-energy Cajun band called L’Angélus that consists of family members who are establishing a real following across the United States and Canada.

Finally, there was a new company, Portable Prayer Life Chapels, which manufactures and markets prefabricated in-home chapels that I found both very interesting and beautiful. I don’t know about you, but I am always looking for ways to improve my prayer life, and having a lovely chapel in your home certainly seems like a good way to do that.

How do you see the CMN growing?

The mission statement for the Catholic Marketing Network states that we exist to help facilitate the efficient manufacture and distribution of Catholic materials, and I believe we do just that. These are exciting times as we see a growing interest in faith-related books, music, films and other items. In fact, religious titles are one of the few areas in which publishers have experienced growth recently, and I believe that trend will continue. For the CMN to grow, we will need to be an organization that is both relevant to existing Catholic distribution channels, but also an entity that plays a helpful role as new ones develop. It’s great work to be involved with, and I’m optimistic about the market for Catholic items as a whole and our role within that market.

Tom McDonald is based

in Medford, New Jersey.

To contact Alan Napleton, email [email protected]