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The 4 Cs of Marketing for Independent Bookstores



by Grace Park


The past few years have been difficult for the Christian bookstore industry. Between the closing of Family Christian and LifeWay storefronts, communities across the country have lost access to over 400 Christian bookstores. Unfortunately, these Christian chains didn’t make it in the physical space against e-commerce retailers, secular chains and big box stores.


However, if you’re an independent Christian bookstore, take heart. According to the American Booksellers Association, not only are the number of indie bookstores on the rise, overall sales through these bookstores has increased by about 5 percent over the past year, outpacing the market by 3 percent. And there’s good news for Christian publishers too—according to NPD Bookscan, sales in the religious books category grew by 3.4 percent in 2018, outperforming the general market by 2.1 percent.


Though the outlook seems generally positive, the question remains, how can your store thrive when so many others have failed? Retail giants have many advantages, including large marketing budgets, dedicated marketing teams and sophisticated data systems. So what’s an independent bookstore to do?


Don’t compete with the big guns.

At least, not on their terms. There’s a helpful framework called the “4 Ps of Marketing” that is taught in every Marketing 101 class. Here’s a quick overview of what each P is and how large retailers apply the 4 Ps:

• Product: This is the retailer’s merchandise mix.

Merchants like Amazon, Walmart and Target aim to offer a wide variety of popular items in order to provide a convenient, one-stop shopping experience. Similarly, bookstore chains bank on their in-store selection of bestselling titles, national brand cafés and broad online product selection to draw in customers.


• Price: Retail giants leverage their size to create cost

efficiencies, which they pass on to customers in the form of everyday low prices. Retailers may also seek to gain marketing share by setting their prices lower than their competitors’.


• Place: This refers to a retailer’s distribution channels

or where products are available. A national retailer may have numerous physical locations—which they’ve chosen through careful demographic, geographic and market research—as well as an online store.


• Promotion: This is how and what you communicate

to your customers to persuade them to buy products at your store. Promotional tactics include ads, publicity, discounts, events and in-store displays. Large retailers spend millions of dollars on TV and radio commercials, direct mail catalogs and coupons, and email and social media campaigns.


Here’s the thing: if you try to compete with retail giants by following their lead, you’re playing a losing game. They’re going to be better at it. Instead, you need to discover a different way to attract customers and, ultimately, sell more books.

Your bookstore is your best and most valuable product

Finding a better way with the 4 Cs

I bet you own or work at a Christian bookstore because you love books and your mission is to be a resource for local churches and Christians. The 4 Cs is another marketing model that takes the 4 Ps and reframes it to focus on your customers instead of your products. This reorientation is crucial for you and your bookstore to serve your community and local churches well.

Working in publishing, I’d love to say the best way to promote your bookstore is to promote our wonderful titles and authors. But in truth, your title offerings are simply part of your merchandise mix. Your bookstore is your best and most valuable product. And the 4 Cs detailed below will help you to identify and clarify your competitive advantage:

• Customer: As a Christian bookstore, you serve very

specific target audiences. In addition to the customers who enter your store, get to know the churches and ministries in your area. Expand the geographical radius of your reach. With the closing of Christian bookstore chains, there are fewer stores to provide resources. You can help fill the gap.


Perhaps you could make it a goal to know and care about your customers better than Amazon or any other competitor. As you connect with and cultivate relationships within the communities around you, you’ll be better equipped to serve them well.

Here are some questions you can ask:

• What is your church/organization known for?

• What needs do you have?

• What needs does this community have?

• What resources are you looking for?


The feedback you receive will help you figure out what products and services you should provide to your customers.


• Cost: When a customer shops, whether at your store

or a competitor’s, the experience incurs costs beyond the price of products. This includes factors such as time, gas and mental and emotional energy. When you think about cost, consider how you might decrease the cost to your customers and add more value for what they’re paying. For instance, as your employees build relationships with your customers, they grow to trust your staff and their recommendations. Because customers know they can trust your store, they enjoy coming to shop there and feel that the experience is more enjoyable and less stressful than buying their books and supplies online.


• Convenience: Amazon and big box stores work hard

to make shopping with them a one-stop shopping experience. But this also makes for a rather bland and impersonal experience. Additionally, with so many options, it’s sometimes difficult for consumers to figure out what brands or sellers have the best quality or are trustworthy. Product descriptions and reviews may be helpful, but they can also be misleading. E-commerce sites and large stores can be confusing and difficult to navigate. As you get to know your customers well, you’ll be able to discern how to make their shopping experiences more convenient for them based on what they’re looking for and the challenges they face.

• Communication: If creating marketing plans seems

out of your league, it may be helpful to work with someone who has the experience. Reach out to a marketing company for independent Christian retailers to find affordable solutions for catalogs and flyers.

In addition, email and social media are two inexpensive ways to establish consistent communications with your customers. Be warned: it takes time and effort to set up digital communications and intentionality to grow your email list and social media followings. But there’s no better way to keep customers updated on sales, events, new products and anything else going on at your store. Through your emails and social media, your customers will be able to get to know you and your store better. You can also engage with them by asking questions and answering theirs, inspiring them with cool graphics and creative quotes, or simply posting about whatever you and the communities you serve care most about. Your goal is to build an inviting online community for your customers. Then invite your online community to in-store events and continue the conversation in person at your bookstore.

As a local bookstore, you have a mighty advantage over e-commerce, big box and chain stores. By knowing your customers better than any corporate giant can, providing products specifically suited to their needs and preferences, and thoughtfully engaging with them, your bookstore will be uniquely equipped to serve your customers and communities better than anyone else. CRA


Grace Park is the Marketing Director at Moody Publishers, where she oversees book marketing, publicity, digital marketing and audience development. She and her team are on a mission to help readers grow in their relationship with God by introducing them to Christ-centered books written by authors who love the Lord.

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