Archive for September, 2012

Vacation Visits Lesson in Customer Service

Owning your own business means simply not getting away for holidays when you like. Despite now being officially empty-nesters, and despite wanting to celebrate a wedding anniversary of some numerical significance; the best we could do was three nights in New York and Pennsylvania in August. So when a whole week opened up in September, we hopped in the car and headed for Michigan.

One of our stops was Bronner’s Christmas World, where I’m told that, even on a slow day, there are 300 people working the sales floor, offices, and shipping department; and that the electrical bill is $1,250 per day.  This place has a very powerful Christian witness — in the store’s name on signs and billboard’s the spelling is always CHRISTmas — there is no mistaking their beliefs. Every customer package, every shipment and every item of mail that leaves the facility contains a gospel tract; they give out over a million each year, though the one we got — God Bless America — was somewhat inappropriate for we Canadians.

We also got to visit two different locations of Family Christian Stores, and both there and at Bronner’s we were reminded what superior customer service looks like:  (a) genuinely interested in helping, (b) knowledgeable about various types of products and interests, (c) naturally friendly and cheerful, (d) willing to go the extra mile. 

Customers at Family stores are invited to consider child sponsorship and it amazed me how the clerk at the store at Port Huron was able to (a) slip in that sponsorship promotion and (b) offer customers extra impulse items despite having a lineup of people.  In Saginaw, one sales associate found himself working alone with (a) both phone lines holding with inquiries, (b) a Bible that needed imprinting, which they do on-site and (c) a customer with about forty items; and yet, he never got flustered, there was never the tension you might expect in that retail situation.

I generally don’t do conventions, but enjoy dropping into stores associated with major instead, where product offerings from vendors have already been filtered. We make a few notes and then get back in the car. This time around we got to see a living customer service seminar acted out before our eyes. It’s a service standard we all need to shoot for.

So how do your store employees rank in each of these areas:

  • genuinely customer-focused; people-focused?
  • product knowledge in all departments?
  • overall attitude and approach?
  • willingness to give 200%?

Cook Modifying Consumer Discount?

There has been much discussion, both here and elsewhere, about the direct-to-consumer sales David C. Cook is doing at Today I received a tip from one of my readers in the prairies to check the site again, and currently, the 20% discount that was on the site has disappeared. Why, and for how long, we’re not sure; and it’s possible that those with a login are still being offered extra perks.

In related news, we also found out today that Zondervan/HarperCollins joined the Cook site fully expecting that there would be unanimous participation by all major suppliers, but that never materialized, since neither Thomas Nelson or the various Foundation Distributing publishers came on board. When retailers started objecting to the discount profile, Zondervan got caught in the middle. Currently, ZDV product is also showing at regular retail.

Categories: Uncategorized

What Future Church Are We Betting On?

Last night when I couldn’t sleep I started thinking about Christian bookstore closings — some recent, some future — and wondered what this says about the prospects for the Church of Jesus Christ here in Canada.

I know the realities of eBooks, online ordering and a general decline in reading that’s taking place in our screen-saturated culture. Those are the answers I give customers on a daily basis. My wife and my staff are tired of hearing the oft-repeated lines. People are spending too much leisure time and too many leisure time discretionary-spending dollars on their screen habits. People want their books yesterday and online ordering holds that promise. Our publishers helped create print-on-demand as an answer to out-of-print titles, and then roundly rejected in favor of electronic formats. We’re an industry in need of a hit. Our Canadian store pricing is based on the U.S. dollar so we’re in a deflationary cycle.

Yes, I know all those lines. And I have bills to pay, too. And competition from my suppliers. And rising costs; and especially, here in Ontario, wage costs that were totally skewed by a 50% increase in the minimum wage over seven years.

And yet, having considered all these factors, what does a store closing say about the possibility of revival or rebirth taking place in our local assemblies? What does a Christian supply shop shutting down say about the ongoing need to resource new Christians, Children’s ministry leaders, Bible college students, returning missionaries and church pastoral staff?

What future are we betting on when we close?

What future becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if we close?

Psalm 137 – The Message

1-3 Alongside Babylon’s rivers
    we sat on the banks; we cried and cried,
    remembering the good old days in Zion.
Alongside the quaking aspens
    we stacked our unplayed harps;
That’s where our captors demanded songs,
    sarcastic and mocking:
    “Sing us a happy Zion song!”

4-6 Oh, how could we ever sing God’s song
    in this wasteland?
If I ever forget you, Jerusalem,
    let my fingers wither and fall off like leaves.
Let my tongue swell and turn black
    if I fail to remember you,
If I fail, O dear Jerusalem,
    to honor you as my greatest.

Cook Strikes Again: Promotional Items Now Restricted

Tonight I was checking on the status of a forthcoming release and noticed there were window clings and shelf talkers available for Dee Henderson’s Full Disclosure. Heck, if they have some left over and uncommitted, I don’t mind adding some sizzle to my otherwise bare front window.

Instead I got this message for both:

Please note: Access to this product (9780764296918) is not available.No products were added to the shopping cart.

I can understand it with window clings — though I do have an ample quantity of this title on order — but restricting shelf talkers? Aren’t those just pieces of cardboard? Are they really thinking they’re going to get my reorders on this title?

Send the Light Adds Promise Keepers Booklet

September 21, 2012 1 comment

While I’m not saying it’s 100% effective, one of the great thing about dealing with a smaller distributor is their willingness to listen to requests, an option most of us don’t have with Ingram. So when I mentioned that there’s a companion booklet to Man Alive by Patrick Morley and that the book and booklet are central to this year’s Canadian Promise Keeper’s conferences, they were more than willing to add the title.

So…if you have demand for Becoming A Man Alive, it’s now available from Send The Light in packages of ten for $19.90 U.S. 9781601424198

This Random House/Waterbrook title is also available in Canada from Augsburg Fortress Canada.

Categories: Uncategorized

Family Friendly Fiction: The River by Michael Neale

September 17, 2012 1 comment

In many ways this is going to be the most difficult book review I’ve written, not because I didn’t like it, but because of the direction I want to take with the review. So let me say at the beginning that I certainly did enjoy the book; it is very well written with painstaking detail especially on the subject of white water rafting, and while I don’t want to minimize some of the early chapters, The River by Michael Neale is like a great symphony piece that builds in intensity with each new section.

The River is a Bildungsroman — there’s your new literary genre word for today — meaning a coming of age story; which in this case traces the story of Gabriel Clarke from early years to adulthood, largely in terms of his relationship to the river in the part of Colorado where he grew up, and his separation from the river during his formative years in Kansas. Thematically, the book’s primary concern is the parts of our past that follow us through life that we cannot shake.

The river itself might be seen as a metaphor for something else, but I would be very cautious in ascribing a particular interpretation on this point. There are hints of possible meanings, but it was hard for this reader to see the river as little more than …. a river.

And that was where, as I neared the conclusion, I started to think in terms of where this book fits in to the Christian fiction I usually read. There are some things in the plot that can be considered divine providence, and one reviewer I found certainly read this into the story, but for the most part that attribution is neither direct nor implied.

All of which brings me back to discussions I had with people in the ’80s when the Christian music industry was going through a period of rapid expansion: What constitutes a Christian song? What constitutes a Christian album? Or in this case, what makes a work of fiction a Christian fiction title?

Ignoring the obvious — I’ll save you making the comment — that Christian is not an adjective; we tended in those days to say that if the artist was a Christian then the work was “in.” Others said if the LP or cassette or CD was released on a Christian label, then it must be Christian music. But the topic consumed many hours of heated debate. How does that apply here?

Michael Neale is a Dove-award winning songwriter for the song Your Great Name. So, no faulting him there. The publisher imprint, Thomas Nelson, makes things a little more challenging, since Nelson does do a few business books and general interest gift books, but is primarily known in the broader industry as a religious book publisher. But which religion?

The point I would make here is that The River would be quite at home among a collection of books relating to North American aboriginal belief, pantheism, folk religion or even new age literature. In a typical Christian novel, the characters’ thoughts, words and actions are informed by their belief in and desire to follow Jesus Christ. In the previous fiction title I reviewed, The Reason, (also Thomas Nelson) much of the book takes place in a church and there are long sections where the characters wrestle with matters of faith. Not every faith-based novel needs to be quite so obvious, but this one is as far at the other end of that spectrum as can be. I recall a scene where a family prayed before a meal, but that stood out as an exception.

So honestly, I’m not sure where this title fits into the sometimes judgmental Christian book market. DVDs which are family-friendly but not faith-based make the cut at Mardel, Parable and Family Christian, so on that basis there’s no problem here. But often book readers hold authors, publishers and book vendors to a higher standard.

Great story. Well done. Five stars.

Just not sure where it fits in with other books I’ve reviewed here.

A copy of The River was provided to Thinking Out Loud by Thomas Nelson and Graf-Martin; available at your local bookstore from Thomas Nelson.

Being Both a Blogger and Bookstore Owner

September 15, 2012 1 comment

After 35 years in the Christian bookstore business, two years ago when my blog started hitting significant numbers, I was suddenly offered more free books as a cog in the promotional machinery than I ever received as part of the retail machinery.  While I appreciate the current state of things, I don’t believe it’s right that so many of the frontliners who can make or break a title are cut out of the promotional process.

When I am offered a book, I ask two questions

  • Is this a book I want to keep in my library?
  • Is this a book I will order or have ordered for the store?

If I’m not going to keep it, and not going to sell it, then it doesn’t get reviewed.

After reviews appear at Thinking Out Loud — some of which are copied here, too — I usually place it on a part of our store blog where customers can find them all in one place. (Actually our former website address now rolls into the home page of the blog, which is much easier to update and make changes to.) Click the link and let me know what you think.

Publishers Selling Direct to Consumers is a Widespread Problem

September 14, 2012 2 comments

It’s not just bookstore staff in Canada who face this problem; consider the following U.S. offer to pastors and churches from Zondervan’s Church Source: The book is being offered at 60% off; standard trade discount for stores is 40%; that means the consumer can purchase it for 33% less than the stores can buy it. Why would any American pastor or church leader ever pay retail again?

Check Your Ingram/Spring Arbor Credit Notes

Fortunately, it doesn’t happen very often, but if you ever have occasion where Ingram/Spring Arbor is crediting you for the full value of an item, it’s very rare that the credit note will include the 8.9% flat rate shipping charge, or whatever rate applies in your province. 

So if there was a book that was $11 net, you’ll see a credit for the HST/GST applicable, but not the freight you paid.  You’re now out $1. 

It seems a little unfair, but it’s more unfair trying to explain how the flat rate ship system works to a customer service rep. who is unfamiliar with Canadian accounts. Sometimes you’re better just to write it off as a loss.

Categories: Uncategorized

Street Dates in Perspective

September 11, 2012 3 comments

Here are my Tuesday sales of three “major” titles which released today:

  • Provident Films – October Baby – none
  • Joyce Meyer – Change Your Words, Change Your Life – none
  • Beverly Lewis – The Bridesmaid – none

So glad we waited and jumped through all those hoops. A not bad day otherwise, though. (Unless you factor in the little boy who peed on the carpet.)

Comparative Religion Reference Material for the Masses

For Christian publishers, any kind of reference book can be a tough sell, and the sub-category of “world religions” isn’t likely to produce a chart-topper anytime soon. So I always appreciate it when authors and publishers go out of their way to produce helpful material in a form that is more accessible to the average person.

Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day (Bethany House paperback) is one such title, and the “15 minutes” in question is probably more like ten minutes for most of us, if that. For someone like myself — eternally doomed to confuse Hinduism and Buddhism — books that provide a refresher course like this are always needful, and Garry R. Morgan, who teaches missions at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota even provides a bonus “extra minute” with an always interesting sidebar.

The book has 40 chapters and covers 24 distinct religious groups, with five sharing parts of two chapters, and others having multiple chapters. (Christianity 5; Islam 6; Folk and Aboriginal religions, Buddhism and Hinduism 3 each; Judaism 2.)

Sometimes there are similarities between other faiths and our own. Here’s a paragraph from the book with parallels added:

…Conservative Judaism leaves to each congregation whether or not they will accept a female rabbi (sounds familiar, my denomination is wrestling with this right now). The person who actually leads the synagogue services, however, is the cantor, or hazzan (in other words, the worship leader or worship team is in charge of the service). Large congregations seek a cantor who not only sings but will also compose original music. Usually the cantor is also responsible for coaching young people in Hebrew as they prepare for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah (in other words he doubles as the youth pastor). (Okay I stretched that a bit, but not much.)

Or this paragraph about Islam,

Islamic beliefs and practices are based on the Qur’an, the Sunna and the Haddith. The Quar’an is held to be sacred scripture… Many questions about faith and practice arouse after Muhammad’s death, so Muslims asked those who had known the prophet and were still alive what he said or did in various situations. These were eventually written down and collected into the Sunna (or Sunnah) meaning “Traditions.” Although not considered a holy book like the Qur’an, in daily life the Sunna is moved more frequently. (Which reminded me of what some view as a concern that although we have the gospels, in many of our churches, the majority of New Testament sermons are based on what Paul wrote, not the words of Jesus.)

The book is also ever dealing with the question of which groups deserve a chapter and which are simply mentioned in the context of a larger body, which bears on the question, what constitutes what the larger group would consider a “cult” and at what point do these subset groups become a religion in their own right. (Or if you want to go for the pun, in their own rite.)

Books like this are tough to write because, while this one will mostly be sold through Christian bookstore and online channels, there is always the possibility (and for the publishers, the hope) that the title will appear on the shelves of mass retailers like Barnes and Noble in the U.S. or Chapters/Indigo in Canada; which means you don’t know that a member of that group won’t flip through a copy to see how they’re represented.

And I wondered if there was something of this behind a sentence that appears early on,

At the publisher’s request, this book intends to be descriptive rather than evaluative or polemic.

so I contacted the author at Northwestern. Garry Morgan was gracious enough to write back:

Garry R. Morgan

…They encouraged me to not hide my own faith, but to just describe what the various religions believe and practice, without an overtly evangelistic “here’s how you share the Gospel with a ….” section.

Even in my World Religions courses at Northwestern College, where all the students are professing Christians, I strive to be fair and accurate in describing the religious beliefs of others (I tell my students my goal is to teach in such a way that a follower of the religion sitting in the classroom would agree with my description, even if they disagreed with my assessment). So, I don’t think the book would have been substantially different without that request. Had I assumed an all-Christian readership, I might have added suggestions for appropriate responses to the various religions (e.g. “You can’t love your Muslim/Hindu/etc. neighbor and fear them at the same time.”). I did find it challenging at times to use vocabulary or phrasing that non-Christians would understand (it’s surprising how ingrown one can become teaching in a Christian environment). I think keeping the potential non-Christian reader in mind helped sharpen my writing.

Certainly the problem of becoming ‘ingrown’ is behind the need for this book. While I learned a lot reading this — including reading some chapters twice — and especially enjoyed the sidebars at the end of each entry, I lamented the absence of a concluding chapter to bookend the very helpful introduction. In a way, Garry Morgan provided the missing element to me in his note, and I offer it here alongside my recommendation of this title:

I do believe the Christian faith is truly unique. I think that comes out in the first chapter on Christianity in the book. My hope is that non-Christian readers would do their own evaluation and come to the same conclusion, and that Christians (who I assume will be the vast majority of readers) would have a resource for better understanding what others believe in today’s increasingly globalized society.

A copy of Understanding World Religions was provided to Thinking Out Loud by Graf-Martin a book promotion and publicity agency that comes alongside publishers and authors to increase visibility for key titles in Canada.

Quoted sections page 60 and page 69. The book is 174 pages and retails for $12.99 U.S.

Other books in this series include, Understanding Theology in 15 Minutes a Day and Understanding Your Bible in 15 Minutes a Day both by Daryl Aaron.

The Emerging Power Struggle Between Distributors and Retailers

September 7, 2012 11 comments


Prior to September 2008, the distribution of major Christian publishing lines in Canada — with the exception of Zondervan — were concentrated in a single distributor. Taking their cues from store owners of a previous generation, retail buyers were relatively compliant when it came to respecting Canadian distribution rights, and though the option existed to “buy around” existed with Spring Arbor, Riverside-World, and Anchor Distributing, it was neither practical nor practiced except in dire cases of rush orders for consumers, or stores that found themselves on credit hold with the Canadian distributor. Besides, the distributors were the place to get the knowledge necessary to move ahead into the next selling season. They had the inside track with authors and publishers. Knowledge was power. But that was changing.

The changes brought about that fall split Canadian distribution into two branches — again not including Zondervan or Thomas Nelson, which opted to serve the market direct — and by the spring of 2009, it was business as usual for both wholesaler and retailer. But there was four problems.

First, online ordering brought a “need it yesterday” mentality among consumers.  Canadian distributors had to compete with Spring Arbor, and later STL, who would pack and pick orders almost within minutes of receiving them.  For stores in Ontario, where the two new major distributors were located, differences in delivery time were often small, but in Western Canada, buying around suddenly became more attractive.

Second, the recession caused a slowdown in new author signings, a cutting of author rosters, a major down-scaling of the Christian music business, and a general pessimism among many in our industry.

Third, online buying and the emerging electronic book industry meant that print books were under threat, which added to retailer’s concerns and produced a cautionary approach to buying.

Finally, the internet allowed ordinary people to ferret out obscure books and authors and contributed to a market which had always been subject to denominational fragmentation. The Top 50 Books list was still viable, but did not tell the whole story of what was being purchased by consumers.

Still, as a group of distributors and retailers, we survived but survival means often ordering six copies of a book that might have produced a case-lot order in earlier times. A check of supplier inventories on a given title might reveal that you have more copies of that book than they do on a given day.

While we need each other, the balance of power is shifting to where the suppliers need the retailers more than the retailers need the suppliers. Unless you continue to place orders, to support the domestic distribution network in Canada, the distributors’ businesses are a house of cards that comes crashing down.

But distributors need to make you want to place those orders.

I’ve written this so far deliberately excluding mentioning names, and I’ll continue in that vein, but one example I’ve used here before involves the distribution of Christian music to radio people in Canada. Much money is spent on marketing individual CDs, and radio people receive perks such as novelties or collectable CDs created just for promotional purposes. During the summer, I went through my own files of press kits that I received when I was part of the promotional machinery.

But as I’ve written, unless your music buyer places an order, the CDs don’t sell through and the system collapses. The money should be spent nurturing relationships with those people as much or more than press and radio people.

Another concern is the issue of speed of delivery. Despite their two-day service system, Send the Light and Spring Arbor have secondary warehouses in other parts of the U.S. that reduce wait times for customers there from two days down to just one day. I’ve asked a few times over the past years why the two largest Canadian distributors don’t have a secondary warehouse in Alberta containing copies of the top 100 books, top 30 music items, and top 20 DVDs.

Then there’s power of arrangement. You should be able to customize your shipping minimums once without having to wonder when the next exception will take place.

For a couple of stores I’ve talked to, there is the problem of direct-to-consumer sales. This probably grates on some owners more than anything else. The suppliers want the retailers to respect their rights to distribute product wholesale, but disregard the other half of the bargain: That it’s the retailers who then market to the consumer. Distributors can try to have it both ways, but that leaves them with no recourse to insist on their distribution rights.

And you may have an issue or two of your own.

But the greatest threat to distributors is their own attitude. Historically, it was the wholesale companies that had the inside track on information, upcoming titles and release dates. Today the internet makes all types of knowledge available. While some gift lines are not otherwise available in Canada, books and music can be purchased anywhere. Savvy business owners can work out all kinds of alternative options, including the dealer who simply printed his own music club loyalty coupons, or the store that simply bought an American Christian bookstore about fifty miles to the south; and younger store owners often benefit from a business education their parents never had, which offers them a broader view of possible models for inventory acquisition.

Wholesale distributors simply don’t hold all the power they once had.

If you, the retailer, don’t support the system, or you greatly temper your buying, their system is in trouble. Wholesalers need to find ways to work together with you, not offer you arrogance, indifference or non-cooperation.

And they know it.

And you know it.

Instead of getting product “sell sheets” that say, “If you buy X number of units to ship by Y date we will offer you Z percent;” you can say, “I’d like to cut that minimum back by about 30%, still get the same discount, but have the product ship a month later.”  If they offer you 90-day terms, you can say, “That just messes up our bookkeeping; I’d rather have free shipping.”  If they say you get a free endcap display with the number of units you’re buying, you say, “I’d like you to keep the display but give me two extra product units.”  If they say your shipping minimum doesn’t apply to street-date product, you say, “I want that minimum to include street date product.”  If they say, “We’re marketing this product to churches across Canada;” you say, “We won’t take this at all if you’re also selling it to churches across Canada.”

Because increasingly, you, the retailer, hold a greater balance of power than you did four years ago.

And if they all want to keep their jobs, they have to find a way to support the remaining few retailers that are left, or attrition will simply eliminate the need for their distribution system altogether.

~Paul Wilkinson