Ian Matthews writes:
There has been much lively debate over the last twelve months or so about the future of Christian publishing and, especially, retailing; much of it triggered by the game-changing events in Carlisle. On this blog there has been some heated discussion about the ethics of on-line retailing, local support and what the future holds. With the kind permission of Phil I wanted to share some of my thoughts having worked on both sides of the fence, and as someone who now earns part of his living thinking about new ways of communicating.
I wanted to look at the music industry as an example of what might happen. There was a time when even a modest town would have a thriving independent ‘record’ store – perhaps two – and probably one of the major chains. The local independent created a niche through selling more specialised genres and artists (less top 40 stuff) and by connecting closely with the local music scene – promoting concerts and events and being a part of the local music scene. Such a place was already endangered by the aggressive pricing of the multiple retailers before the advent of the CD, and their discounting of backlist didn’t help. By the time downloading started to take hold (25% of all music sales – physical or downloaded – is now through iTunes alone, never mind Amazon, play.com, emusic etc; and all of the file-sharing) their demise was certain.
The chains thought they had won, but they too are now failing (in the case of Zavvi, formerly Virgin Megastore, they have failed) and any high street presence of a CD store is looking unlikely in all but the biggest retail destinations.
What has this done locally? 30 – 40 people who used to work in an average town now have had to find alternative careers and people who are looking for obscure artists are going online. However, the local music scene in the UK is healthier than it has been for years – open mic events, pubs with gigs, concerts, music festivals etc all contributing to a vibrant community in many towns. Much of this local stuff is powered through the internet – facebook, myspace, twitter etc, and local artists are financing it through both physical sales and selling online (tunecore and CD Baby both offer schemes for unsigned acts to sell via the major on-line retailers). Local community in the niche interest area hasn’t disappeared with the loss of the retail outlets. In fact, this has driven more imaginative ways of engaging people in music and musicians locally.
So, is there hope for the Christian bookshop? There is another example that can, I think, point the way. The retail chain Games Workshop started life as a small games retailer that hit the big time by securing the rights to Dungeons and Dragons in the UK, before developing a number of product lines of their own. It catered for a dedicated and small market of hard-core ‘gamers’, and found their audience disappear almost overnight with the advents of high-quality computer games. Their response, in the last decade, was both unexpected and risky.
They decided that rather than continue chasing after their shrinking customer base, they would build a new community. They transformed their stores into locations that were family-friendly, open (a lot) and welcoming. They trained a whole new set of managers who were committed to this. My daughter has started to enjoy their Lord of the Rings game and, when she wanted to do this we went into the local shop to have a look.
As soon we walked in we were greeted by a friendly shop assistant (who actually turned out to be the manager). After a brief explanation he sat us both down, talked through the range and persuaded us to have a go painting one of the little characters each (they had 4 painting stations all set up and ready to go). He talked us through each step of the way, chatting with us and making us feel very welcome. After this was done, we took our figures and he walked us through the actual game for half an hour. At the end of this, he had spent an hour and a half with us and there was no expectation that we would buy at this point (although we did buy some paints and brushes). He talked through all the options and invited my daughter back to one of the many events they did.
Here is the point: he was creating community not selling to us.
The shop has three ‘gaming rooms’ upstairs as well as three tables on the shop floor and the painting stations. The products are all around, but the actual activity is the focus – people can come in and play (and paint) at any time. They run ‘academies’ on a Sunday afternoon (that are free of charge) and evening tournaments. Their business comes from their community. Oh, and we were able to take the figures we painted away with us … for free.
What conclusions would I draw from these examples?
- There is no right for a Christian bookshop to exist
- The world is changing, and we all need to adapt. The bookshop may go the way of the music shop, but life still carries on
- Witness and community can exist and thrive without a Christian bookshop – in the end the Church will find creative ways
- Arguing that people should shop in a local Christian bookshop for ethical reasons will only create short-term loyalty
- Creating community is more important than the sale, and taking the time with a new customer was the key in the latter example. I felt absolutely no pressure to leave, leave him alone or buy anything.
I do think there can be a future, but it is not a future made by generous suppliers, guilty customers or a shrinking customer base. It is a future made by the imaginative, creative and risk-taking individuals who will find the new models that will succeed.
Ian Matthews worked in both retail and publishing. He was head of marketing for a telecommunications retailer, owned and edited the Christian trade magazine, consulted for a range of publishers and spent five years running Zondervan’s operations in the EU. He is currently working with a student ministry called EGM Films, running a literary agency and working as a marketing consultant.