Aquinas and More. Good Faith. Guaranteed.

Marrying the Old With the New - How Do Catholic Stores Reach Today's Customers?

by Ian on June 11, 2009

(Reprinted with permission from CBA Retailers + Resources 05/09)

By Lauren Zaczek

With a last name like Zaczek and a childhood address listed in Chicago, it should go without saying that I come from an extremely Polish Catholic family. My relatives have occupied pews in the Windy City’s Catholic churches most Sunday mornings for generations now.

Although I no longer attend a Catholic church regularly, there still are traditions, declarations, scenes, even scents that draw me right back into the heart of Catholicism. These days when I enter a Catholic church, it’s those occasions I wish to rediscover, even if only in small part.  rough unique product selections and accessibility, Catholic stores today also have the ability to meet my needs whether I intend to purchase a gift for myself
or someone else.

THE CATHOLIC STORE CUSTOMER

Recent research indicates that 64% of Catholic store customers are female, according to Al Napleton, president of the Catholic Marketing
Network. He also shared with me recently that while 28% of core Catholic store customers are between the ages of 18 and 35, an additional 72% of core shoppers are 35+. Other demographics Catholic stores serve on a regular basis include clergy and lay church staff.

Benedictus Bookstore manager Patrick O’Mahoney’s customers re ect this trend at his Lexington, KY, store. “Mainly our customers are  middle-aged women who are looking for gift items, especially sacramental and inspirational gi s,” O’Mahoney shared with me over the phone.

Ian Rutherford of Aquinas & More Catholic Bookstore in Colorado Springs, CO, tends to serve customers who are slightly younger. Rutherford’s core customers are between the ages of 25 and 40 years old who enter his store for one of four reasons:  they’re inquiring about the Catholic faith; they’re in need of an Easter season gift; they’re enthusiastic about their faith and want to know more; or they’re clergy looking for church supplies. “We have Catholic priests who come in, but we also have Lutheran clergy looking for more liturgical products,” Rutherford said. “The other Christian stores in town carry more Evangelical products and don’t necessarily have the depth of liturgical products that both Catholic and Lutheran customers need.”

Closer to the Pacifc, Catholic-store owner Dennis Maurice sees more extended families walk through his store, Glad Tidings, in Pleasanton, CA. “During the day, it’s the Walmart family structure, the family that herds together,” Maurice explained. “We also have about 10-20% of our customers who are non-Catholics. We can’t assume all our customers ‘speak’ Catholic.”

READING & BUYING HABITS

CBA Consumer Intelligence helps store owners and managers understand the buying habits of those customers who do speak Catholic, though. In 2008, 52.49% of consumers surveyed who identified themselves as Catholic also said they read books. Of that 52.49%, a full 80.81% said they read those books frequently or occasionally. Comparatively, of all respondents who identified with any Christian denomination, 82.19% read
books frequently or occasionally. Of all consumers surveyed regardless of religious affiliation, 82.74% said they read books frequently or occasionally as well.

Since Pope Benedict XVI’s election, Rutherford has noticed a change in they type of books Catholics are reading and purchasing. Pope Benedict’s writings during his papacy are also influenced by his works prior to his election. Unlike Pope John Paul II’s more celebrity-like books produced by secular publishers, the majority of Pope Benedict’s writing was done as a theology professor and is slightly more challenging to read, according to Rutherford. Regardless, customers are still buying it in his store.

In addition to book-reading habits, CBA Consumer Intelligence indicates 25.93% of self-identified Catholic consumers read their Bibles on a daily basis. Another 27.78% of Catholic consumers dive into their Bibles on a weekly basis.

As for Catholics’ book-purchasing habits in 2008, 35.35% of those who read frequently also frequently purchase new books in a store versus the 21.44% who frequently purchase their books online. Overall, consumer book-purchasing habits reflect these trends, as 34.57% of those who frequently read also frequently purchase new books in a store. And 21.60% frequently purchase their books online.

Rutherford’s store caters successfully to both types of consumer purchasing habits. As the largest online Catholic store, 85% of the store’s total sales originate online. While Aquinas & More is undeniably wellstocked, Rutherford admits, “ The back offices are really where everything happens.”

Aquinas & More also holds the title of the only Catholic store with a blog (owner comment: I told the reporter that I'm not aware of another Catholic store with a blog, not that we are the only store with one). On a regular basis, several staff members contribute to Aquinas & More’s blog (www.catholicinformation.aquinasandmore.com), allowing for multiple and far-reaching online interactions with customers.

Napleton sees equal opportunity for Catholic retailers to partner with technology rather than oppose it. “Generally, the stores haven’t really participated in the growth of the Internet, and view it as something that takes away from their business,” he said. “ e Internet is having a big impact on retail in general, of course, and Catholic stores are no exception.”

Online stores continue to gain popularity, too, as Napleton receives an equal number of people interested in opening brick-andmortar stores or online stores. “I’ve been in this business for more than 20 years, and when I started there were a couple thousand Catholic stores.  the numbers have stayed relatively the same as stores have closed, but others have opened either physically or online. Today, the make-up of those wanting
to open a store is typically a younger person who understands new technologies.  they’re individuals looking to go straight to the consumer
through Internet marketing.”

STAYING RELEVANT

For Maurice, staying relevant is a carefully calculated mixture of returning to the basics of retailing, integrating new products, and creating open communication channels within his parish’s leadership. “Everyone has to challenge themselves in category management these days,” he said. “Figure out what your best-selling items are, and then make sure you don’t run out of them— in every category. We all know black Bibles sell better than burgundy ones.

“Customers are going back to the basic bread-and-butter items,” Maurice continued. “People are staying home more and eating at home more, so they’re entertaining at home more. And they’re not used to it. So they’ve starting to pray more.  they’re buying more DVDs. We can’t keep up with
DVDs in this store. DVDs are what CDs used to be in the Christian market in the Catholic market.”

A simple way to learn what a store’s basics are is for the owner or manager to shop the store as if he were a customer, suggests Maurice. “Pretend you’re coming into the store looking for something specific—a birthday gift or an anniversary gift or anything—and see what you find.  This will tell you a lot about your store, and if you have what you need in stock.”

Maurice also believes more clergy recommendations would have a significant impact on sales in Catholic stores. “If our priests would recommend more products, in any which way they feel comfortable doing, our stores would have a 20-30% increase. Every time a priest says something at a conference, we can’t keep up.”

For O’Mahoney, staying relevant includes connecting with his parish’s already thriving youth groups. Maintaining strong relationships with all of the parishes’ youth leaders in his community has created an opportunity for the store to carry merchandise that speaks directly to younger generations. O’Mahoney has also focused on hosting events outside the store, such as connecting with local Catholic schools. “The schools
allow us to come in and do book sales, and in return we allow those book sales to be a fundraiser for that school,” O’Mahoney explained.
“They spread the word about our store, especially the customer service they receive while here.”

Napleton believes stores can remain relevant through their inventory mix, as well. Throughout his tenure in the industry, he’s seen the quality and variety of products greatly improve. “The introduction of new products hasn’t slowed down, rather it’s expanded in all categories: books, Bibles, gifts, art, apparel. There’s a challenge in bringing the products to the market, but in each one of those areas, there’s more innovation and
variety and suppliers out there. Each year the products get better,” he said.

As I left Aquinas & More yesterday, Napleton’s words rang true.  The product quality and selection has indeed improved since the year I donned my infant baptism dress. And when Father’s Day draws closer next month, I’ve already planned the shopping list for my return trip to the store.

Lauren Zaczek has worked at CBA for the past three years and is a regular contributing writer/editor for CBA Retailers+Resources and the CBA blog.

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