On Monday, the United Methodist Publishing House shook up Methodism by announcing it would close all of its Cokesbury stores, which Methodist clergy and laity – as well other mainline Protestants – have patronized for generations. Many United Methodists reacted negatively to the news, but UMPH said the closings are essential, given that so much bookselling has moved online.
The Reporter was able to get an email interview with Curtis Riskey, president of CBA – the well-known Christian retailers’ association. Here’s what he said about UMPH’s decision.
Given the retailing/Christian book market, does this development come as a surprise to you?
I had no previous knowledge of plans to close Cokesbury stores, but I’m not necessarily surprised the company is moving in the direction it is. Cokesbury has a very unique retailing model that has extended beyond brick and mortar outlets for decades, particularly through telemarketing and catalog sales.
Was it inevitable, given the shrinking number of brick-and-mortar bookstores?
Brick-and-mortar stores have faced retailing obstacles for decades. The customer has been changing, technology has been changing and many stores have had to adapt to their customers changing needs. With relation to Cokesbury, they are a very unique Christian retailer where 85 percent of their current customer base shops in multiple ways outside of the brick and mortar model. As the retail division of the United Methodist Publishing House and an agency of the United Methodist Church, Cokesbury specializes in resources for congregations, church professionals and leaders, and Bible studies used by churches and laity. The company is changing its business model based on how their customers use the stores and purchase products, which is primarily online.
This model does not translate to all retailers. A need remains for a physical place because people like to shop in stores. Cokesbury resolves this by planning retail events and conferences at church and seminary locations, where their core customers are located.
How would you assess Cokesbury’s reputation in the industry, in terms of marketing savvy, ability to capitalize on opportunities, etc.?
Cokesbury has been a leading retail operation for more than 200 years, although the number of stores has declined by about half in recent years. It has been a leading chain in launching new church voices as well as bringing national pastors and authors to their customer base. Cokesbury has been very proactive in reaching out to meet customer needs, and is one of the first Christian-store retailers to deploy e-book sales and delivery through proprietary technology development.
How are Cokesbury competitors doing these days?
The continuing sluggish economy, rising costs of doing business, and high unemployment has affected all retail to some extent. However, some Christian-store chains, franchises and independent stores are reporting growth. In the 2012 CBA State of the Industry report, representing primarily independent stores, about 40% reported sales increases and more than 17% reported flat sales. At the height of the recession, net sales overall last year declined about 0.4%.
Christian stores, like other retail channels, are moving toward what is called “omnichannel” retailing, which means physical stores are connecting earlier with their customers online as they research and price products before coming into stores, working to create strong in-store experiences, and staying connected to customers after the store visit.
While store sizes are getting smaller because of increasing online sales, we anticipate brick-and-mortar stores will continue to be a place for product discovery, interaction with other Christians of like mind and values, and a reflection of the local Christian community. A recent Bowker Market Research study found that the brick-and-mortar store is still the number one way that readers learn about new titles and authors.
How are e-books faring in the Christian market?
Generally speaking, e-book sales through Christian stores are increasing. However, they are still a small percentage of overall Christian-store sales. E-books represent around 10% of total book sales, although some publishers and genres have a higher proportion of e-book sales. According to Bowker Market Research, e-books represent 32% of Christian fiction and 21% of all adult fiction, but only about 12% of all adult non-fiction and 10% of Christian non-fiction. Some genres have smaller percentages of e-book sales.
CBA commissioned research this year with The Barna Group, which reported that Christian-store customers are adopting e-reader devices slightly faster than the population in general. The study also found that about 70% of these customers would buy e-books through their favorite Christian store. With more than 800 Christian stores capable of selling e-books now, we expect to see that small number increase significantly over time.