A new item at Christian bookstores in 2020 shot straight to the top of the sales charts: face masks with faith messages.
Christian retailers across the country sold masks with the messages “Not Today Satan” and “This too shall pass,” as well as “Faith Over Fear,” “Blessed Beyond Belief,” and “It is well with my soul,” as stores found creative ways to continue business in a pandemic.
Two new industry surveys show that Christian retail was hard hit by COVID-19 and the subsequent safety restrictions, but store owners persisted with stubborn optimism. The Parable Group’s 2021 State of Christian Retailing report found more than half of store owners are concerned about cash flow, but 87 percent predict a “healthy” or “steady” future—up 12 points from 2019.
More than a third of Christian bookstores were closed for more than two months because of the pandemic. Sales in March, April, and May were down 60 to 80 percent from the previous year. The Christian Retail Association (CRA) reports that sales stayed down for nine months in 2020, only recovering with Christmas shopping in December. Parable’s survey of 230 stores documented annual sales of $58 million—13 percent below 2019 revenue.
Looking at the year, however, individual store owners could see silver linings and God’s faithfulness. Kevin VanDuyne, owner of Joy Christian Bookstore, reported that his two outlets in Indiana were closed for a total of eight months, but his sales were only down 17 percent.
“Summary,” he wrote on the CRA survey: “GOD IS SO AMAZING, GOD IS SO….GOOD!!!”
Stephanie Gann, owner of Living Water Bookstore in Paris, Texas, had a similar testimony.
“Though I thought the COVID-shutdown would be the end of us, God has been SO faithful,” she wrote. “We’ve been able to pay our bills on time every month, and we had a little leftover at the end of the year.”
The industry is no stranger to struggle. Roughly 1,000 Christian bookstores closed between 2010 and 2020, including the two largest chains, Family Christian Stores and LifeWay Christian Stores. Neither recent industry report indicated how many Christian bookstores closed in 2020.
Parable Group president Greg Squires said there were at least a few that went out of business in the pandemic, but the number didn’t seem a lot higher than the trend. It’s possible the stores that survived the economic crisis and found ways to compete with Amazon in the last decade were the ones in the best position to survive a pandemic-related economic shutdown.
Christian booksellers adapted to COVID-19 conditions, offering curbside pickup and sometimes personal store reservations. One owner in Sheboygan, Michigan, had the store phone redirected to his personal cell and arranged to open the business for individual customers to shop. More than 40 percent of bookstores started delivery services. An increasing number also turned to email promotion, Facebook Live broadcasts, and social media marketing to connect with customers.
For some Christians, the bookstores’ social media presences served as an important connection point when they were cut off from other interaction. Vicki Geist, owner of Cedar Springs Christian Store in Knoxville, Tennessee, said her store only turned to Facebook Live broadcasts out of necessity, but then found the daily media posts mattered to their customers.
Squires observed that the stores met the spiritual needs of the moment. “When customers couldn’t go to their local church, they were encouraged and refreshed by finding fellowship in their Christian bookstore,” he told Publishers Weekly.
Christian bookstores also saw changes in their customers’ needs. Homeschool curricula only accounts for a tiny fraction of Christian books, but the retail stores saw a 68 percent increase in the sale of homeschooling materials. Bible sales—about a quarter of Christian bookstores’ business—increased by nearly 3 points, with the Zondervan’s compact New International Version and Tyndale House’s New Living Translation thinline reference Bibles topping the year’s bestsellers.
“We have seen a great interest in Bibles since we opened back up,” said Phillis Cowan, owner of Bread of Life in Melbourne, Arkansas. “Also, prophecy and end times books are selling as well as books and gifts with the ‘hope’ theme.”
Retailers also saw an increase in sales of church supplies, despite the drop in sales of Easter items and vacation Bible school curricula. According to the CRA report, the top three items sold in 2020 were Bibles, masks, and single-serving fellowship cups.
According to the CRA survey, about a third of Christian stores plan to keep selling face masks for the foreseeable future, offering customers a chance to wear their faith on their faces, with messages like “I can do all things through Christ,” “Wanna taco bout Jesus?” and the straightforward “Hope.”
The retailers themselves are not just optimistic about the future. They’re actively preparing. At the Christian Product Expo in Wilmington, Delaware, this winter, representatives from 56 stores placed more than 1,300 orders for books and items to sell in 2021.
“It is a bright, shining new year,” said Bob Munce, president of CRA, “and therefore, a great opportunity.”