The Demise of Christian Retail in Canada? Maybe, but…

I have heard and read today that as of yesterday afternoon, R.G. Mitchell Family Books of Willowdale, Ontario, has been placed in receivership.  Mitchell’s was the largest distributor-retailer of Christian literature in Canada.  This follows on the heels of the folding of Canada’s largest-ever Christian bookstore chain, Blessings Christian Marketplace, which has been whittled down to four stores in western Canada from a nationwide high of 27 stores.  (Make no mistake:  the way in which Blessings closed so many of its stores had an impact on Mitchell’s which has contributed to the loss of Mitchell’s.  This has been a multifaceted situation.)

Does this foretell the demise of Christian retail in Canada?  Maybe, but I doubt it – for a number of reasons.

Say what we will about the state of the North American economy, people still make sure that they have enough money for what they want to spend it on – and they will go to the greatest lengths to ensure that they get their money’s worth.  Thanks to online retailers like Amazon and Chapters, competition for book-shopping dollars has grown ever fiercer.  And with organizations like the Canadian Bible Society entering the online retail world through, the competition can only get stronger.

The market for Christian products is small compared with, say, the market for 2% milk or the market for John Grisham novels.  And overhead costs contribute to the higher price of Christian literature.  But there’s nothing to endear a customer to a retailer – online or in-store – like good, old-fashioned customer service.

Customer service (either retail or wholesale) was not R.G. Mitchell’s strong suit, at least not in recent years.  What’s more, the online economy has redefined customer service, to a certain extent.  Speed of service (i.e. shipping) and reasonable prices are demanded by the customer today.  And, in the online community, if the vendor treats the customer like a human being, that goes a long way, too.

Now, I’m no marketer, and no expert in retailing. But I am a consumer, a customer.  And I know what makes me loyal to a vendor.  Mitchell’s did nothing to enjoin my loyalty, and if there were others like me, it is not much of a surprise that Mitchell’s is folding.

If you are in the Greater Toronto Area, you have alternatives!  There are fine Christian retail outlets at Speelman’s (Steeles Avenue just west of Kipling) and Crux Books (behind Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto, on Hoskin Avenue).  And, of course, for Bibles, there’s the Canadian Bible Society, one block west of Victoria Park and Lawrence.  There may be others – feel free to respond with your suggestions.

And if you’re a Christian retailer reading this?  I know that you face many difficulties, and you’re not getting rich on Christian retail.  With a distribution change, things may get better for you.  If you focus on providing excellent service to your customers, and sell at prices that are competitive, you will survive, maybe even thrive.  And if you consider an online presence, that increases your chances, in my opinion.

Another option, being tried by the Canadian Bible Society, is to ‘franchise’ Christian literature into churches, and perhaps other retailers, so that edifying material is conveniently available to people.

One thing we cannot give up on, and that is the dissemination of Christian reading material – the Bible, first and foremost – to people in a convenient manner and at an affordable price.  This can be a rallying point for Christians and churches all over the world.