The Passion of the Christ, which proved Hollywood could make a smash hit out of Christ’s life and death, should have made a pretty profit for Christian retailers when it came out on video this fall.
In many cases, it didn’t.
”I don’t really get excited about the front list titles anymore because I can’t make money off them; I have to match the Wal-Mart price,” said Keith Woodall, owner of CrossRoads Christian Bookstore in Springfield.
He said he netted about $1 per DVD, or $41 in total profits since the movie came out on video Aug. 31.
The burgeoning popularity of Christian books and music, such as the New York Times bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life and albums by musical group Third Day, means mass merchandise retailers such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy have put the products on their shelves. And as the mass market in Christian products booms, many smaller Christian retailers are sinking.
This summer, 20,000-square-foot Cedar Springs Christian Store closed on Nolensville Road near Old Hickory Boulevard in Nashville. Owner Curtis McGinnis, who has three stores in the Knoxville area, said year-after-year declines in sales, partly attributable to competition from general merchandise retailers, meant he couldn’t hold on any longer.
McGinnis had cut back on his staff from 25 to 10 when he laid the rest off this summer.
Like other Christian retailers who feel their life’s work is part of their mission, McGinnis has mixed feelings about the mainstreaming of Christian merchandise.
”Our whole idea is to get it out to people, whether it’s a Bible or music,” McGinnis said. ”At the same time, we would like to be the one selling it to them.”
Last year, a Christian store called Crossroads in Hermitage was converted to an antique and home gallery.
Overall, some 231 stores that sold Christian merchandise closed last year, according to the Christian Booksellers Association.
More than half of the association’s members reported flat or declining sales last year. And that percentage rose to 60% in a more recent survey of sales during this year’s second quarter.
This is in contrast to the overall blossoming of the Christian publishing and music industry, much of which is based in Nashville. The Association of American Publishers said religious book sales, which are 5% of the total market, grew 37% last year, compared to flat sales for general hardcover and mass-market books.
The latest in spiritual advice is available everywhere from Amazon.com to Davis-Kidd Booksellers. Titles range from John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart: the Secret of a Man’s Soul to The Purpose-Driven Life by California pastor Rick Warren.
Sales of Warren’s book have eclipsed most other books at Davis-Kidd. This year the mainstream bookstore has sold 546 copies.
It has been on The New York Times bestseller list for 93 weeks, where it is No. 2 in the advice category, behind He’s Just Not that Into You by a pair of Sex and the City writers.
”We do notice if a pastor talks about a book on Sunday or for Sunday school or mentions it in passing. It increases sales tenfold,” said Erin Waller, the general merchandise manager at Davis-Kidd.
Big Idea is the Franklin-based company with the VeggieTales branded videos, audiotapes, books and games featuring cucumbers and the ”Italian scallion,” which teach Biblical and moral lessons. It sells half of its product in general merchandise stores.
Aside from Internet sales and mainstream stores, there is even competition from Christian book clubs, said Neva Neeley, the owner of Neeley’s Christian Bookstore in Madison.
”All those things are big problems,” said the 74-year-old, who is hoping to sell her business. ”There’s not a way to tell the effect of Wal-Mart and Sam’s (Club) except that they do sell for less than we can.”
Neeley said she only sold a few copies of The Passion of the Christ.
She has been able to survive because her son owns her building, and he cut her rent in half after her husband died three years ago. Her strategy? Cut back on inventory as sales continue to decline.
LifeWay Christian Stores, a Southern Baptist Convention affiliated chain based in Nashville, has some 122 stores and has felt the effects of the mass merchandising of Christianity.
In e-mailed responses to questions, Bill Nielsen, the director of merchandising and marketing for LifeWay, said while the company wasn’t losing customers, it had seen a decrease in transactions, and margins were hurt by downward pressure on prices.
He would not divulge specific sales trends but said growth in same-store sales was ”much less than we would like to see.”
Nielsen also was concerned about consumers only being able to find a few products at big-box retailers, instead of a wealth of spiritual materials that could deepen their faith.
”Furthermore, customers are likely to find other ‘religious materials’ alongside Christian products and be exposed to everything from cults to New Age philosophy to the satanic bible,” Nielsen wrote.
According to the Christian Booksellers Association, Christian products sold by the association’s suppliers amounted to $4.2 billion in 2002, the latest year available. General retail sold $1.1 billion of that amount, up from $1 billion in the year 2000.
”Gone are the days we sold 100%, that’s true,” said Bill Anderson, president of the association based in Colorado Springs.
”That’s not our goal. People could go to a Wal-Mart or a Barnes and Noble and see the bestsellers. But if they want the breadth of selection, the Christian retailer is still that store.”
Anderson said his members are trying to cope with competition by adopting the efficiency models that the large chains have. Some stores whose computers used to place orders with publishers daily have switched to twice-a-week orders to reduce paperwork and invoices, saving millions industry-wide, he said.
Others are trying to reconnect with churches, and one store in Macon, Ga., is hand-delivering the curriculum for Sunday school.
Anderson said there was optimism going into a recent Christian Booksellers Association convention, and that 18.4% of its members had seen sales increases of 9% or more in the second quarter. Others are happy just getting by.
”If they can maintain or even stay flat, they feel like they’re holding their own. They feel like they’re doing good with some significant headwind,” he said. ”These are very hard times. I’ve been in the industry 30 years and I can’t remember a time that was more demanding for our retailer. But I really like to see them owning the responsibility rather than blaming.”