Echos of the Decline of Mormon Retail

The April 2008 issue of Christianity Today featured an article on the changes that have affected Christian retail over the last two decades. The description is surprisingly similar to what has happened to LDS retailers — so much so that I thought the article’s claims bore some analysis here.

The article indicates that the CBA, the former Christian Booksellers Association, “has reported a drop from more than 3,000 members out of an estimated 4,000 Christian retail stores in the mid-1980s to a mere 1,813 members today out of an estimated 2,800 stores in existence.” The same kind of drop has been seen by the LDSBA, which has seen attendance by bookstores at its annual convention drop by half.

Unfortunately, the article is long on description of the problems and short on answers. But there are a few ideas that may help LDS retailers improve.

  1. The article quickly identifies one problem in the Christian market’s success. The rise of blockbusters like The Prayer of Jabez and The Purpose Driven Life led the broader market, including general-interest bookstores and Internet retailers, to pick up the bestsellers, generally offering them at lower prices. But this competition meant that Christian stores lost sales they had depended on, forcing them to rely on backlist titles and sidelines that offered higher margins (like art, jewelry and other items). Then another area that Christian stores depended on, Music, also dried up, as sales went digital download.
    Something like this has happened in the LDS market, but regionally in Utah instead of nationally. Bestsellers like The Work and the Glory, Vol. 1: Pillar of Light were picked up by Barnes & Noble and Walmart in Utah and Mormon music sales has likewise moved to digital sales (if not digital file sharing).
  2. The article also observes that Christian stores are “undercapitalized” and have “undertrained owners.” In my experience, the same thing is true in the LDS market, perhaps even to a greater degree than in the Christian market.
  3. Again like the LDS market, the article points out that Christian stores are often difficult to sell when it comes time for the owner to retire or move to another business. There simply aren’t enough people interested in going into the business
  4. The Christianity Today article also reported a consultant’s survey of 100 Christian consumers. 41 of the 100 said they visited Christian stores less frequently in 2007 than the year before. The most common reasons reported by those surveyed include that they found online purchasing more convenient and to offer better pricing and better selection. I don’t know if this is true in the Mormon market also.
  5. A real estate professional interviewed for the article suggested that Christian stores needed more “AA” locations. He said “When we ask consumers why they don’t shop at a Christian bookstore, they say they don’t have one to go to. It’s a visibility problem. When you have a “C” location, you doom yourself in the beginning.” The LDS market faces a similar phenomenon, but in the LDS case, the stores often don’t exist, at least in many areas outside of Utah!
  6. Some genres (Fiction, according to the article) are actually sold more in alternate channels — other places besides stores. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that this is true in the LDS market — mainly because the alternate channels aren’t as well developed.
  7. In the end, the article suggests a different type of store for the Christian market — something that might be possible in the LDS market. The article quotes Lando Klassen, owner of the House of James, a Christian store in Abbotsford, British Columbia.
  8. We should have some titles that non-Christians will recognize. Otherwise, our stores can be pretty scary to some, too foreign. I am always looking at how I can give people more reasons to come in.
    Folks are looking for something different. We should surprise and delight our customers

  9. The article also suggests that retailers would do well to analyze their customers by type – by their personal characteristics. According to the article, the Christian market can be divided into more conservative, traditional Christians and a newer generation. The conservative, traditional Christians look to Christian stores “as safe places to shop, with no worries about sexual content, profanity, or wild theology. The larger Christian chain buyers may consider themselves gatekeepers of appropriate content.”
    But the newer generation, according to the article, is looking for something different. They are “less willing to be sheltered and cloistered. Adults might think they are ‘dining with the Devil’–but younger adults are more comfortable thinking of themselves as exiles in a Babylonian culture. They tell us, ‘We don’t need you to caretake our content–we can make these decisions.’ They are skeptical of places that feel antiseptic or too polished.”

I like a lot of what this article says, and I think it is directly applicable to the Mormon situation. I wish more LDS stores had thought about these issues. While some of the problems identified probably can’t be solved (music downloads, general-interest stores selling Mormon bestsellers, for example), I would like to see someone take on the challenge of creating stores for the new generation of Mormon buyers.

What do you think?

[The Christianity Today article, How to Save the Christian Bookstore, can be found here.]

3 thoughts on “Echos of the Decline of Mormon Retail”

  1. Interesting parallels. But as for your final question, I wonder to what extent the “new generation” Mormons are interested in low to middle-brow Mormon arts. It seems to me that the safeness (both content-wise and theologically) of the material is a primary selling point for a lot of LDS works in the first place. I just don’t know that there’s a strong enough new generation Mormon market.

  2. Eric:

    For those of us in the LDS market, this is probably the scary part. If “new generation” Mormons don’t need the “safeness” of the market, do they need the market at all?

    The perception I see from many members is that they are disaffected in exactly this way. Despite the value I think that Mormon-related works can bring, they don’t look for suchy works because all they see is the “safeness.”

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