Beating Competition at Its Own Game

( [email protected] ) Jun 16, 2004 11:27 PM EDT

Christian retailers who've seen pieces of the retail pie gobbled up by online sales can now use the same technology to turn tables on the competition. The purchase of an online bookstore from Spread the Word (STW), the world's largest inventory of Christian products on the Internet, provides a source of income for Christian bookstores, churches, organizations and individuals.

A one-time $290 fee and a 10-minute sign-up process results in a customizable Web site with more than 158,000 products - compared to Amazon's 60,000 Christian products and Christian Book Distributors' estimated 90,000 - including books, Bibles, music software and gifts, through agreements with Spring Arbor, Appalachian, Alpha USA, Group Publishing and Foundation Publications.

STW went online in October 2002, following a test market of its services at a Christian bookstore kiosk at Metrocenter mall in Phoenix. Sixty days later, with 51 bookstores on the board, the mall location was closed and the transition into traditional office space in Phoenix began. Today, the company has 1,100 affiliate bookstores.

Tom Pittman, vice president of operations, and Steve Darrow, president and CEO, left successful businesses in the general market to launch STW after realizing that 80%-85% of the $4.2 billion Christian products industry is being sold through non-Christian channels.

"We want to redirect the consumer buying power of Christians from the secular world back into the Christian community," Pittman said, whose online business has been succeeding in the face of Web sites such as and failing.

In the month that Jim Cox launched his bookstore web site, he said he reclaimed sales previously lost to the Internet.

The owner of the three-store Anchor Book Shop chain in Tennessee and Virginia had his domain name secured years ago, but didn't have the time or money to invest in the site.

"People used to call and ask for titles and ISBNs and then turn around and order products from," he said. "Now we direct them to our Web site."

While he doesn't make the margins that he does in his traditional store, the tradeoff is no overhead cost since the product is shipped directly from the distributor to the customer.

"You don't have special orders in the back that nobody picks up," he said. "I'd rather make a few percentage points than not get the sale at all."

He said the site is beginning to pick up regular customers, particularly those living in Tennessee who avoid the state's 9.5% sales tax by ordering online and receive shipments usually in 2-3 days, and no later than 6-10 days.

A bookstore owner's role is primarily to promote their site, while STW processes credit card payments, handles returns and sends a monthly commission check. Owners can use a STW template or customize their site to include, store name, logo, hours and upcoming events. Marketing and sales tracking tools are available online as well options to control the site's content. Owners can decide how much of their 30% commission they want to pass along to shoppers.

Online bookselling represents the third retailing venue for mother-and-daughter Ann Wolf and Jackie Johnson, who started out doing home parties and launched Sonshine House in Newark, Del., in 1987, selling to Family Christian Stores in 1999, with Jackie remaining on as manager until last year.

They launched their bookstore website in August.

"It's everything we love, less all the huge workload and stress that comes with running a store for 17 years," Johnson said. "If we hadn't found it (STW), I don't know that we would still be in Christian retailing."

Wolf added that this is a way that independent storeowners can "keep their business and not feel pressure to sell" because of competition.

Setting up a traditional online bookstore typically requires store owners to coordinate multiple vendors as well as pay merchant account setup fees, payment gateway setup fees and ongoing monthly fees even before making one sale. In addition to setup and monthly fees, these systems also charge store owners per-transaction fees as well as a percentage of each sale's total.

SpreadtheWord bookstores change everything. There are no merchant account or gateway setup fees as well as no monthly fees, no per-transaction fees and no percentage fees. For $290 you can own your own fully-stocked Christian bookstore and earn 30% of each item's retail price or pass some of the savings on to your customers.

Each SpreadtheWord bookstore comes completely stocked with over 150,000 of the latest Christian books, CD's, video's and gifts and accepts all major credit cards are accepted and SpreadtheWord even handles shipping for all pre-stocked products.

For more information, contact Spread the Word's Swiss Valley Christian Bookstore at 1-440-282-1683 or visit