Soul-searching in the Bible bazaar

During a three-hour wait on the Tijuana side of the Mexico/California border crossing, enterprising sellers shifted among the queued vehicles selling gimcrack shrines. This was such a far cry from the lovely museum-style religious giftshops in Spanish cathedrals we had visited 12 months later that it made me curious about the nature and future of religious retail.

The US – a country of  “God and Guns” as well as the biggest commercialisation machine on the planet – is an instructive example of what’s happening in this particular marketplace, and how it has changed and developed in recent years.

The Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) was formed in 1950 following the growth of post-WWII evangelism. The religion industry exploded during the 1970s as the new televangelists took on the cultural upheaval, with the number of Christian bookselling outlets increasing 25 per cent in 10 years. And in 1974, the CBA was joined by the Evangelical Christian Publishing Association.

The boom goes bust

Like bookstores more broadly, for the past 10 years US Christian bookstores have been closing as shoppers increasingly buy online and authors self-publish. CBA membership has dropped from 3000 members and 4000 stores in the mid-1980s to 1813 members and 2800 stores in 2008.

The decline of book sales meant some of the remaining players increased the diversity of their ranges into home decor, toys, music, apparel, auto decals and even foodstuffs.

In 2017 Family Christian Stores – the self-proclaimed “world’s largest retailer of Christian-themed merchandise” – shuttered its remaining 240 stores and laid off 3000 staff. Critics and purists had always labelled it a purveyor of “Jesus junk” and feared it was unconcerned with correct doctrine in its offerings. But despite its valiant battle to survive – declaring bankruptcy, appealing to suppliers, going not-for-profit – the diversification model couldn’t save it.

On the other side of the coin lies Lifeway Christian Resources, the publishing division of the Southern Baptist Convention. While it has an e-commerce presence and 200+ stores, some of which are moving towards a Starbucks-style “third place” hangout, it strives to keep to the party line and delists non-doctrine-friendly writers (such as those supporting gay marriage). Gatekeeping hasn’t  been the answer either; its sales have declined, and its future remains niche at best.

Here in Australia, the Hillsong store has gone the quasi-diversified route with categories including books, music, teaching material, apparel, and “stuff the bus” Christmas gifts, toys and food – most adhering to its brands and curricula.

A cursory Google search of religious stores in Australia yielded a few consumer-oriented e-commerce sites, with offerings of gifts and devotional materials – and this time of the year, a lot of it is about Christmas. Amazon has gifts, books, Advent calendars, crosses, Bibles etc – and Christmas ornaments. And of course there are the trade shops, where churches can buy candles and vestments.

When buyers disappear

The US, like Australia, is seeing a long-term decline in church attendance and religiosity. In Australia’s 2016 census, 30 per cent claimed to be “no religion”, up from 18 per cent in 2006. The Christian share of the pie decreased from 64 per cent to 52 per cent in the same period.

While the US has higher overall religiosity figures, the trend is the same. In 2016 while Christianity and its derivatives stood at 74 per cent of the US population, “no religion” was 18 per cent (up from eight per cent in 1990 and 15 per cent in 2008, and increasing to 34 per cent of sub-30 year olds).

Consumers are increasingly shopping for books online, and Amazon doesn’t have theological filters. When I typed into its search for “religion”, the first thing that appeared was a range of books about religion for and by atheists.

So the question remains, for a religious retailer to retain its relevance is it better off being a curator and a “trusted source” and risk perceptions of gatekeeping, or should it throw in its lot with diversity and become a Bunnings of Bibles? Judgment awaits.

Norrelle has 20 years’ experience in retail, category, channel and customer strategy, marketing and research, working in and with global retailers, manufacturers and research houses.  

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