Is there a future for small Christian bookshops in the digital age? It is a sad fact that many Christian bookshops are closing, as more people are downloading electronic versions of books to their Kindles and tablets.
In 2016, Mayflower Christian Bookshop in Southampton will celebrate its 40th anniversary. The shop is linked to Spring Road Evangelical Church and plays an important part in the church’s local witness.
Business people, students, mums and pensioners come in for photocopying, stationery and greetings cards. The manager and staff are good listeners and have helpful conversations. Some visitors have been converted and become members of the church. Others have become regular customers and buy books every month.
However, selling Christian books online has been difficult. Recently, the shop has made improvements to try and meet this trend. We are still a work in progress, but we are starting to see the benefits. We hope describing our experience here may help other bookshops.
Christian bookshops have a major advantage over the large online retailers. Our books are trusted by our core audience of Christians and we do our utmost to make sure every book is trustworthy from a Bible perspective. We strive to check the content before we sell any book, which is important for our reputation as a trusted bookshop.
Christian bookshops have other advantages too. We are specialists, meaning we may have books that major online retailers don’t keep in stock. Some may be out of print, or second-hand, or collectible rare books. We have over 300 such titles online.
We have purchased a card reader that uses PayPal to handle payments, making it easy to complete transactions. We have also revamped our website, using WordPress which can be adapted in clever ways. We had various people within the church and beyond willing to help with their different skills.
We have redesigned our website layout to make it easy for visitors to find books, using searches and easy-to-browse sections. Bookshop staff can add or remove books under a host of different categories. We include reviews, so the content is kept fresh.
Buying online is now easier; there’s a ‘how to’ guide for anyone who gets stuck. Within the UK, we have made postage free for orders over £10.
There’s no point in having a website if you don’t tell anyone. We gathered a large number of email addresses from our shop databases, plus from contacts with friends, churches and organisations. We contacted other customers to request their email addresses.
Everyone was then emailed with news of special offers and free postage, and an invitation to take a look at our restructured site. Our Facebook page keeps people up to date with information, and customers have been invited to sign up for a regular newsletter.
Online sales took off in a small but significant way. In the first half of 2014, we received only three book orders online. Now we’re on course for around 80-100 online orders for books in the first six months of 2015; and counting. Some orders are for multiple books, including one customer who purchased 42 second-hand books.
We also publish our own resources: Mayflower Bible lessons for Sunday schools; Mayflower Christian resources for primary schools; and Bible Treasure daily reading notes for beginners. These are available via the website, which customers appreciate as they cannot be bought elsewhere.
We are now looking at other areas, such as offering our own eBooks from printed books that we have published in the past.
In summary, our advice would be to identify, understand and communicate closely with Christian customers near and far, and serve them well.
There are two sides to the shop, online and in-store. Both need to be worked at. It’s not a path to great profit, but it can help a struggling bookshop survive in tough economic times, so it can continue as a light to the gospel, both online and locally.
Above all, we give thanks to God for his help and guidance in all of this, trusting that Bibles and good books may continue to build up more Christians and point more unbelievers to the Lord Jesus Christ (www.mayflowerbooks.co.uk).