Expansion Strategy

By Jonathan Puddle
on April 28, 2015

This article was written by our Retail & Publishing intern, Jess Watson. She's really quite great!

A few weeks ago the Attwell Books team sat down in our newly re-layed-out office to discuss our strategy for growth and success at Attwell Books. We recounted the days of old, in the late 90’s and early 2000’s when we were churning in two million dollars a year.  We naturally yearn for those days to return and continually ask ourselves why this can’t be possible.   We have a lovely space, nicer than it’s ever been before (thanks to the wonderfully creative Tammy) and we have a collection of excellent books, but we were confronted with one over-arching problem; no one knows we’re here! We need more customers! New customers will search for a local bookstore, find us, and then either proceed to drive around the parking lot, not realising that we are inside the church itself, or, come in and find out that we're a wonderful store. We need to address the first problem, and increase the number of people who find us. But how?

How does a seemingly invisible, well stocked book shop become visible? First, we looked into some equations. We set a goal of having 5 customers in the store at any given time throughout the day. That would require us to obtain 3000 new customers. We will attempt to get these customers from 1000 churches in the GTA and we would reach 60,000 people via social media.  Our efforts should hopefully lead to 160 people coming into our store daily, which would bring us back up to revenue levels we saw in times past.  These figures currently seem ambitious, but in two years’ time I think we can do it.

First we need to reach our target audience in the churches.  You see, we don’t just cater for Catch The Fire attendees, we have customers who come into our store on a Sunday morning before they rush off to their church service elsewhere. But we want all members of all churches to be aware that we’re here, so we started off by ringing each church that we could find and asking them to advertise us on their bulletins or simply allow us to drop off flyers.  Among ourselves we discussed discount incentives whereby if a customer brings in a coupon attached to the bulletin they could get a discount or if a customer brings a friend into our store, they’ll get a loyalty discount.  Not all churches have the space for a book shop, but we do, so we want to make the most of it. Most churches are very receptive to having flyers dropped off.

We furthermore looked at a few other ways to let customers know of our whereabouts.  We advertised in yellow pages, a more popular advertising medium than we initially thought (OK, honestly, we thought Yellow Pages was long dead), but it turns out 8 + million Canadians are searching each month.   We went about contacting publisher’s  whose books are popular in our store, asking them to add us to their website and any other resources, letting their customers know that we carry their books. Our endeavours were well received and the process of communication continues as we establish ourselves across different channels. Additionally we have discussed the creation of some ‘stop and stare’ flyers with the Catch The Fire creative team, and we have yet to print and distribute our other flyers to local churches and organisations.

What other strategies could we implement to get that desired bustling feel whereby our sales are sky high and our targets are easily met?  We want to draw people in, attract them to our store, so how could we forgo social media platforms!? Facebook ads are paramount in reaching people. If we want 3000 new customers, and we know Facebook conversion rates are abysmal, then we need to put ads in front of some 60,000 relevant, local people. We also plan to do product reviews and post them on YouTube, so that customers may get our outlook on some of the new books we’re carrying in store, like Eric Johnson’s new book Christ in You that was recently reviewed by my fellow intern, Luke Richards.

One thing that we have as a team at Attwell Books, that we consider a strong asset, is that we can hear the voiceof God rendering us full of vision and excitement about His up and coming plans.  We want God to be the centre of all our plans and all our efforts. This isn’t actually about the sales or the turnover; this is about sharing with people the messages that changed our lives: the Father Heart of God, the Prophetic and our Oneness with Christ!  These realities are so intertwined with Catch The Fire’s values and teachings and we want to make these messages accessible to people who can’t make it to a Sunday morning service, or who are deeply involved in other churches. We've experienced real transformation by a loving God, and that's the core reason we run this bookstore at all, to spread transformation to others who are hungry for change. If we can do that more effectively, and bring in more income to resource the Kingdom, all the better!

So this is our plan. Perhaps you’ve been inspired by our ideas to implement some strategic thinking to your own business, or maybe you’ve thought of some  innovative ideas that we’ve missed, if so please share them with us in the comments below! We’d love to hear what you think! 

Thanks for reading.

- Jess Watson

Retail Bloat

By Jonathan Puddle
on March 28, 2015

Future Shop is no more! Customers and employees turned up to work today surprised to find all stores closed across the country, with the news breaking shortly after that Best Buy (who own Future Shop) are closing 66 stores immediately, and rebranding 65 others into Best Buy locations. It seems there was very little forewarning. 

On Monday last week, Faith Family Books also closed their doors with similar suddenness, in their case due to the bank stepping in to liquidate their assets. It's been quite a week, in my personal retail circles.

Unlike many who proclaim doom and gloom over the state of Christian bookstores, and the wider retail industry (citing the collapse of Sears, Mexx, Jacob, Target, et al) I'm not especially surprised, nor do I feel like we're threatened and heading into collapse ourselves. For a couple of reasons. 

First of all, all the data indicates that Canadian retail is growing healthily. New large malls continue to open, existing facilities are growing, and there's a wealth of new, smaller companies carving out niches for themselves that are doing very well. Frank and Oak, for example, are killing it. There's money to be made for people who are doing it right. What appears to be happening is that Canadian market has become profoundly inhospitable for those who are not doing it right.

Second, with the possible exception of the spate of Christian bookstore closings, just about all the other major closures are the result of very obvious and preventable flaws. Target failed to differentiate itself in the market from day 1, it's supply chain was so broken that getting and keeping inventory hardly worked, and buying all the locations of a bankrupt department store (Zellers) is kind of like buying your own burial plot when you're a healthy young person... there are better ways to invest!

Mexx and Jacob both became guilty of a lack of innovation, too much focus on their day to day operations, and failing to move fast enough. I loved Mexx clothes, but I can't remember any time when a Mexx retail experience left me feeling... anything.

Sears and Future Shop fell prey to retail bloat, and I feel that this is fundamentally what's put most Christian bookstores out of business as well. Sears built a huge retail empire, relying upon people's loyalty, their lack of better options, and a selection of high-margin items, and didn't have eyes to see when each of these factors of their success changed. Retail loyalty went out the window for department stores and big box stores thanks to the ever increasing pricing battle, with online price matching and so on. Better options could be the definition of the current retail landscape, with Walmart, Costco, Amazon, and all kinds of other retailers offering the same products with better prices and (often) more convenience.

High margin items are great... so long as people are still buying them. Future Shop relied so heavily on TV sales, something that worked in the early to mid 2000s when everyone was replacing their analog TV sets with digital and HD screens... but now we're good, and the upgrade cycle has slowed down. The same thing happened with DVD sales... as long as people were replacing their VHS collections with DVDs, the DVD market boomed! But as soon as everyone was done replacing, and all the studio's back-catalogues had been released, the market began to slump (which was blamed on piracy, of course).

The Christian retail landscape has been burned for making exactly the same mistakes. The most blame has been leveled at Amazon, followed by iTunes in a distant second. I've said it before elsewhere, and I'll say it again... I don't buy it. It's not Amazon that put your store out of business, it's your lack of innovation, lack of forward motion, lack of differentiation, and lack of awareness of the changing market.

For us in Attwell Books, the cash cow used to be DVD sets of conferences and events. We could record a Catch The Fire conference live, burn DVDs, print the artwork and all in realtime have the entire DVD set available on shelves by 11pm on the last night of the conference. It was an epic machine, and profit margin was around 90%. In 5 years we probably did $2 million on that line of products alone, which is insane. Insane is also what people said when we started to ramp down our production process. While 90% profit sounds great, producing these DVD sets required 3 full-time staff, a whole room full of machinery which was often breaking down, and long, arduous hours for a handful of employees. As our conference attendance began to contract, and as DVD sales began to slow, we pulled the plug on the whole show. It was a sweet ride, but it couldn't have gone on forever.

People sometimes still tell me we should be producing those, since they were so profitable... but that's exactly the Sears mindset that has failed. Today, all of our videos and conferences are available for free, on YouTube, where we have 16,000 subscribers and 3 million views, on 2000 videos. 1.5 million minutes of video have been consumed in the last 28 days alone. People are interacting with our brand online more than ever before, and our reach is massive compared to what it was in the days of DVD sales and online video memberships. While that doesn't translate to direct income (we've earned a grand total of $100 from YouTube advertising), it means our brand reach and influence is enormous, which has knock-on benefits one every other initiative we undertake.

My point is this: in this industry, you can not rest on your laurels in any capacity. You have to keep innovating, keep finding ways to differentiate yourself, and keep listening to customers and watching the industry.

This weekend I'm in Ottawa for the first meeting of a new Catch The Fire church plant. The Salem Christian bookstore in Ottawa recently closed after 35 years. We set up a book table for those attending the meeting, and did $700 business in about 2 hours. That was just me, 2 boxes of books and CDs, a laptop and a smartphone. I'll be back in the office on Monday prepping for our big youth conference, for which we've brought in a new line of clothing, refreshed our existing clothing section, removed our kids toys, and updated our displays. As soon as the conference is over, we'll be repainting all our fixtures, and starting a massive Facebook marketing campaign. And also meeting for 2 days to rethink our next 24 months strategy.

If you want to play Canadian retail, especially Canadian Christian retail, you've got to stay sharp, my friends.

dx3 2015

By Jonathan Puddle
on March 11, 2015

Christine, Tammy and I went to dx3 this morning to check out the trade show. I went last year and came back with some great ideas, none of which we've executed really successfully I'm afraid. Hopefully this year we can turn that around!

dx3 is a digital marketing and sales event, which predominantly features marketing and retail service providers in the trade show, alongside a bunch of great sounding sessions from the marketing and retail worlds. It's a great place to get inspiration, though I particularly doubt many other Christian retailers are in attendance, judging from the "Christian bookstore?!" stares I receive when I tell people what I do.

Here's a few thoughts that we're coming home with:

- As we've seen, it's not about digital vs physical in terms of store issues, it's about combining the two worlds. Creating a phygitical experience. I've written about this briefly here before, regarding our customers expectation to find YouTube available in the store to listen to music.

- Your ecommerce store isn't meant to rival or replace you brick and mortar store. Each one should compliment and enhance the other.

- Low sales on your ecommerce store doesn't mean it's not important to have one. Huge numbers of shoppers today are browsing product and inventory availability online before making an in-store purchase. (A large Christian bookstore in SK told me recently there was simply no ROI in a webstore so they don't have one. I scratched my head in disbelief...)

- I've long been frustrated by the lack of lead generation we're doing in store. We have all these people in the building, and do practically nothing to generate relationship and conversation with them. In discussion with Ravi at Thirdshelf, he reports this is the core problem that SMBs are facing, but most don't realise the opportunities that they're missing.

- A loyalty program is not an ends to itself. We've fallen into this trap with LoyalBlocks, it's giving a few people loyalty pricing, which is good, but it's not really a part of our overall strategy, and it needs to be.

I was impressed once again with what Thirdshelf are offering, now showing a proof of concept solution with Vend and SweetIQ to enhance the entire customer experience from online search, to instore purchase and beyond. It wasn't as well executed as their display last year, but was still good food for thought.

At the present time our biggest problem is simply a lack of customer awareness. But I've been hesitant to launch any major marketing and outreach attempts until I know we'll be successfully converting and retaining every customer as optimally as possible. That's what we'll be pushing into in the next 3 months here at Attwell Books.

Curation and Reputation

By Jonathan Puddle
on December 09, 2014

We were recently asked by our leadership to remove a certain product by a certain minister, because of some concerns about the soundness of a particular teaching. It happens every little while, and always brings about interesting discussion. This typically begins with an email to me or one of my team saying "Please remove x" with not much more detail. We do our best to dig into this, and ask for some explanation and background on where this concern is coming from, who voiced it, what might be the root cause, etc.

In this particular case, the product was in the deliverance and healing section, and some folks we consider to be leaders in this sphere had a concern about a certain teaching, more specifically that there was no Biblical precedent, nor was the teaching actually necessary to expand the existing toolkit available for deliverance ministry. This concern was passed onto our own leaders (through their relationship), which made it's way to us in the form of "Pull this product".

I only learned all this because I dug a little deeper, but now we're equipped to answer customers questions on why we don't carry this product if and when they ask. Which is important, because we have sold many of this product in the past, and we do anticipate questions.

Now... of interest to some is that neither myself nor our buyer actually agreed with the decision, nor with the judgement made about the product.

At Attwell Books we pride ourselves on a highly curated selection of products. We do not view ourselves as the gatekeepers of all theology, and so are willing to carry products that we or others may disagree with... but we do only select those products that we believe are truly useful for expanding the Kingdom. We have a bias towards charismatic products and empowering people's spiritual life, and bring in those products we know produce good fruit, whether we agree with every statement or not. This is one of the big reasons people shop with us, not because we are the gatekeepers of sound theology, but because the products we carry do bring transformation. Part of that transformation is often learning to the hear the voice of the Holy Spirit for ourselves. The same Holy Spirit who can guide us in how to apply what we read in a book, and whether or not it's sound doctrine.

But since Attwell Books is a ministry of Catch The Fire, we are mindful of leadership decisions made by our parents; we don't exist in a vaccuum. We may feel we have a particular identity as a store, but we must also work-out how that fits into Catch The Fire's God-given mission, and sometimes the man-made working out of that vision. So, it's always interesting when these kinds of product bans come up. It's something I know most Christian bookstores deal with in some shape or form, and I know stores who take no interest at all in product controversy and others who take a very hard line (no scandals, no imorality, nothing weird, etc. or at least, no products from people embroiled in such things). I've seen bookstores remove Mark Driscoll's products recently around his bestseller controversy. 

It is a struggle to honour one's leadership, to honour one's customers, and to try and retain your store's individual identity and uniqueness all at the same time, but it is a good struggle, and one that often produces great fruit in the hearts of those involved in these kinds of discussions. It's good to dig deeper. It's good to curate a little bit. While I do view the removal of this product as unncessary, one of the outcomes of this discussion was building a deeper rapport with my own leaders and of their colleagues in ministry. Who knows what dividends this strengthened relationship may result in down the road, both for our own lives, as well as for the health of our store and for access to the products our customers are looking for.

Opportunity Knocks

By Jonathan Puddle
on June 02, 2014

One of my favourite authors is Hugh Howey. He writes dystopic science fiction, like the Wool series, which is fantastic reading. One of the other great things about Hugh is that he is self-published (using Amazon's CreateSpace) and is the most vocal authors about the problems in the traditional publishing business. He writes thoughts on publishing and the writing process regularly on his blog, and a few days ago put up a great post arguing that Amazon isn't actually the evil monopoly that many people decry them as.

Like many businesses, we have a complicated relationship with Amazon. The typical party line is that Amazon and iTunes are responsible entirely for the demise of the Christian bookstore (and many other niches of bookstore), but I'm starting to question the validity of that judgement. Amazon has made things difficult for bookstores, but really only because they introduced competition on price, selection and delivery in a way many of couldn't keep up with (the same goes for iTunes). The result of that is the fact that a city the size of Toronto only has 2 notable Christian retailers today. However, as Hugh points out in his article, this kind of competition was inevitable, and our market was ripe for disruption.

What do I mean? Well... here's an example: the majority of Christian bookstores I go into still have demo systems playing CDs. You've no doubt seen them before, they store 3 CDs, and have headphones attached. Bigger stores may have a wall of these demo systems, since each one can only take a few CDs inside. Do you have any idea how cumbersome or expensive those are to maintain for the store? Or how annoying they are for customers? No one likes them, but few retailers have done away with them. We dropped these demo stations a long time ago simply because they were too expensive to operate, and we did without for a little while, which had a negative effect on CD sales, I'll admit, but then we brought in iPad listening stations. These haven't been without their challenges either, though the costs are low and maintenance relatively simple. The really interesting thing is how difficult we found it to stop people from browsing other things online via the iPads... kids kept playing games and someone even configured the Mail app for their own email. (I know.) But in the last few months we've seen something really interesting. People have begun asking us to go to YouTube on an iPad to listen to an album, or to see a band performing live, before they buy the CD. They don't care about the music we've stored on the device, they want to do it their way. Those who don't own smartphones are basically expecting us to provide a similar service to them in-store, and they see our "Listening Station iPads" are being improperly employed.

Refusal to deal with this kind of change is the real reason that so many retailers, Christian and non, have had challenges in the past few years. As Hugh says though, with the slow collapse of the big book retailers to the likes of Amazon, many small independent retailers are in fact thriving. And many indie authors, using self publishing tools are able to make a living wage as well, when they couldn't from the big traditional publishers.

It's giving me food for thought. I've always said to my team here that competing with Amazon or iTunes is a losers game, we simply need to provide a service that they can't provide. But what I hear Hugh hinting at is that that should have always been our game, and thanks to the shuttering of a number of big book retailers, there's actually a better opportunity for us now than before. This is new thinking for me, and I'm going to see where it leads.

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From the Blog

Expansion Strategy

April 28, 2015

This article was written by our Retail & Publishing intern, Jess Watson. She's really quite great! A few weeks ago...

Read more →

Retail Bloat

March 28, 2015

Future Shop is no more! Customers and employees turned up to work today surprised to find all stores closed across...

Read more →

dx3 2015

March 11, 2015

Christine, Tammy and I went to dx3 this morning to check out the trade show. I went last year and...

Read more →