Saturday, October 17, 2009

Friday, October 02, 2009

Eden and the high street

On-line retailer Eden recently launched an ambitious and audacious offer, giving Christians around the UK the chance to give £3 vouchers to all their friends. I cannot find a link to it, as it was an email offer to their customers. When I read it my initial thought was 'wow ... good move - great marketing'. Perhaps because I do not own or manage a Christian bookshop I didn't have the same reaction as Phil Groome, manager of LST bookshop and Christian bookshop uber-blogger who said, threw down a gauntlet to the rest of the Christian book trade by claiming that their customers were more interested in range, availability and convenience than price. Their latest marketing ploy seems to mark something of a U-turn in attitude: a £15,000 gift voucher giveaway to church leaders to “encourage [their congregations] to read and/or share more Christian literature, music or resources.”

I think Phil is mistaken in seeing this as a U-turn. Customers may be more interested in things other than price, but price is still a good revenue driver - especially a voucher (which has a psychological impact that regular discounting doesn't). Gareth Mullholland, owner of Eden, isn't saying that price doesn't matter, but that Eden has a USP that is more than just that. Clearly, price is part of the mix.

Phil's main response, though, is good:

It’s a great idea that could certainly generate significant sales for Eden, but will do little to help generate footfall in local Christian bookshops — unless we rise to the challenge as I have done at LST: We will accept Eden’s £3 Gift Vouchers.

Well done - that is the response. I think the attitude I have come across with some Christian retailers, where they see a particular town as if it is their 'right' to be the high street witness there is outdated, wrong-headed and fails to take account of a changing culture in which we live. A Christian bookshop, which is a just a shop, is NOT a witness on the high street, it is a shop that most non-churched people will never go in. You do get the odd great testimony, but the occasional encounter does not justify the cost, expense and effort involved in keeping a shop on the high street.

It can work, and work well if the sub-conscious expectations on people today are taken into account. Rather than assuming that people, and churches, will come to you out of some sense of geographical duty, the shop that will thrive is one that understands that relationships, networks, peer-reviews and community drive successful ventures today. For example:

  • The obvious - a coffee chop. A good one with proper coffee (with the various types, sizes, syrups etc), sweet snacks - perhaps sandwiches from the local deli?
  • Customer reviews and ratings on the shelves, and in the email shots to customers
  • Reader reviews and sample copies on the coffee tables
  • A web site that is as much a blog as it is a retail site - let people say what they want
  • Suggestions on products to order, books missed etc
  • Find out why books failed - ask the customers
  • Vouchers in the local church newsletters (perhaps tied to the preaching series?)
  • Weekly top-10 voted books
  • Customer feedback forms (5 questions rated 1 - 10 that can be filled in in 2 minutes and put in a box) to find out if customer service, product range, in-store layout all work

If my calculations are correct I reckon that Eden are making an average of about £1 on every book they sell through this promotion. There is nothing stopping a Christian bookshop taking vouchers for their shop along to every church in their area and putting the vouchers in the hands of the members - the personal touch will have even more impact!

I think Eden have every right to take every opportunity they can to bring customers to their website, and good luck to them - there are about 3.5 million regular church-goers in the UK with only a fraction going into their local bookshop. They are not responsible for the decline in Christian bookshops, the problems run far deeper than that.

In the future I think that Christian bookshops will be either community destinations where people WANT to come to (they won't come for long if it is seen as a duty), or more closely supported by or located in larger churches (and you could have three or four of these in a large city each serving a different constituency). Anything that falls in-between won't last, and perhaps, doesn't deserve to.

What are we here for?