Catholic Business Tips

Can You Sell the Faith?

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So You Want to Open a Catholic Store? (Part I)

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Okay, so for some reason you have an urge to open your own store. Before you invest one dollar in products or designing a logo or even coming up with a name, there are many, many things you are going to need to do.

First, figure out why you want to open the store.

If you want to open a store because the Holy Spirit gave you the inspiration, that’s admirable but you have to remember two things:

  1. The Holy Spirit is not a business man and isn’t going to infuse you with the knowledge to run a successful business.
  2. The Holy Spirit is not going to bail you out when your failure to apply sound business principles to your business leads to its demise.

If you want to run a store because you think it will make you rich, you’re in the wrong business. While it is possible to make a living and possibly a very nice living at a Catholic store, if this is just a way to get rich, your business is going to whither and die because you aren’t in it for the right reasons and people can tell.

If you want to open a store to fight your bishop or your priest, go find a less expensive way to do it. Opening a store to start a fight isn’t Christian and will only lead to problems.

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Catholic Retailing and Fair Pricing

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As a Catholic store owner, it is your responsibility to be a good steward of your business. This includes making sure that the prices you charge are fair. How do you determine what is fair? I think you can ask yourself a few questions to get that answer.

  1. Is there an MSRP printed on the item? If there is, you aren’t likely going to get away with charging more. People will notice the markup and won’t appreciate it. This is usually the case with books.
  2. What do similar items in the non-Catholic market cost? As an example, browsing the Mother’s Day cards at Wal-Mart, it appeared that the standard price for no-frills cards ranged from $3 – $5 with fancy cards costing even more. I DO NOT recommend matching retail store prices for things like cards and jewelry (jewelry is typically marked up 3 and 4 times over cost – how do you think stores survive with constant 60% off sales?) What you can do is look at your card pricing and ask, “If I raise the price on this greeting card to $2.50, which is equivilent to a $3.50 card at a retail store, is the customer still getting a good value?” If you can honestly say yes, then raising the price makes good business sense.
  3. Is the product I am selling worth what I am charging? Clothing is an easy place to look for items that are rarely worth the price you pay. Are tennis shoes really worth $120? Are “barely there” outfits really worth $70?In the Catholic retail world, are the cheap Chinese statues you pay $15 for and sell for $50 worth it when you can get a much higher quality item from Italy for $10 more? In today’s retail world, the typical answer to the question “What should we charge?” is “What can we convince a customer to pay?” This isn’t the right answer and it surely isn’t a Catholic answer. The Catholic answer is “Does the quality of the product justify the price I charge?”
  4. Are inefficient business practices requiring me to charge customers more than I would with a properly run business? If this is true, you need to consider what steps you are taking to improve your business processes. If you aren’t actively trying to improve your business, your pricing is unfair to your customers.

In general, I believe that if you are marking up books over the price printed on the cover, charging more than 1.5 x minimum suggested retail pricing, or charging people more than 75 cents for holy cards that cost you 25 cents, you need to take a hard look at your business practices. If you are doing these things and your business isn’t profitable, your business model is broken and no matter what you charge, your business will eventually fail. If your business is profitable and you are doing these things, someone is going to figure out a more efficient way to do business, undercut your sales and put you out of business.

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Tradition and Catholic Retailing

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Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.
Orthodoxy”, G. K. Chesterton

This quote that I have seen before but was reminded of by Meg’s Musings, reminds me of something that I have found to be true in the Catholic retail business. The Church is steeped in traditions both “T” and “t”. Without these traditions, the Church would be an anchorless boat tossed about by the whims of the present.

Catholic retailers need to accept this reality if they want to have a successful, long-lived business. Part of the problem with our industry and the religious education establishment within the Church as a whole has been an attempt to cut the anchor on the Faith and create something new. The problem with this approach is that eventually the “newness” wears off and you are left with something stale and dated.

For example, if you walk into most Catholic churches pre-1920 you can identify the church as having beauty. You can identify when the church was built but it doesn’t look dated. The reason is that the design of the church is inspired by the timeless tradition and theology of the church and the architects intentionally tried to communicate the Faith through their design.

Most newer churches have been built on the whims of fashion without any concern for the past. As such, they are identifiable as belonging to a specific age and also as being trapped in that age. They are unable to communicate the timeless aspects of the Faith because the builders had no interest in that when they were constructed. Failing to design churches that communicate the Faith and failing to educate children in the Faith is like taking a lake and cutting off its source. The lake will look full for a while but eventually it will dry up.

When you are presented with a new product, think about whether this item speaks to the timeless tradition of the Faith. Is it part of the “Feast of Faith” or is it the latest diet fad? Is the product going to affirm and strengthen people’s faith or is it going to make them question their faith and possibly convince them to leave the Church? Here’s a tip: if the author is in favor of changing Church teaching, carrying that author is sabotaging your business. Could you imagine a sporting goods store carrying products that advocate not exercising? Or how about a natural food grocery store extolling the virtues of hormone enhanced beef and junk food? In the same way, carrying authors that contradict and question the Faith puts you in the odd position of being a business that wants to decrease its customer base.

As painful as it may be, I strongly suggest going through your current inventory and asking yourself if the products you carry are presenting the fullness of the Faith or questioning whether the fullness of the Faith is really worth experiencing. If it’s the later, I suggest you close your doors and find a new line of work or decide to give your customers the Faith in all its richness. I hope you choose the second option.

Tradition and Catholic Retailing

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"Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.
Orthodoxy", G. K. Chesterton

This quote that I have seen before but was reminded of by Meg's Musings, reminds me of something that I have found to be true in the Catholic retail business. The Church is steeped in traditions both "T" and "t". Without these traditions, the Church would be an anchorless boat tossed about by the whims of the present.

Catholic retailers need to accept this reality if they want to have a successful, long-lived business. Part of the problem with our industry and the religious education establishment within the Church as a whole has been an attempt to cut the anchor on the Faith and create something new. The problem with this approach is that eventually the "newness" wears off and you are left with something stale and dated.

For example, if you walk into most Catholic churches pre-1920 you can identify the church as having beauty. You can identify when the church was built but it doesn't look dated. The reason is that the design of the church is inspired by the timeless tradition and theology of the church and the architects intentionally tried to communicate the Faith through their design.

Most newer churches have been built on the whims of fashion without any concern for the past. As such, they are identifiable as belonging to a specific age and also as being trapped in that age. They are unable to communicate the timeless aspects of the Faith because the builders had no interest in that when they were constructed. Failing to design churches that communicate the Faith and failing to educate children in the Faith is like taking a lake and cutting off its source. The lake will look full for a while but eventually it will dry up.

When you are presented with a new product, think about whether this item speaks to the timeless tradition of the Faith. Is it part of the "Feast of Faith" or is it the latest diet fad? Is the product going to affirm and strengthen people's faith or is it going to make them question their faith and possibly convince them to leave the Church? Here's a tip: if the author is in favor of changing Church teaching, carrying that author is sabotaging your business. Could you imagine a sporting goods store carrying products that advocate not exercising? Or how about a natural food grocery store extolling the virtues of hormone enhanced beef and junk food? In the same way, carrying authors that contradict and question the Faith puts you in the odd position of being a business that wants to decrease its customer base.

As painful as it may be, I strongly suggest going through your current inventory and asking yourself if the products you carry are presenting the fullness of the Faith or questioning whether the fullness of the Faith is really worth experiencing. If it's the later, I suggest you close your doors and find a new line of work or decide to give your customers the Faith in all its richness. I hope you choose the second option.

What is Your Quest? – Part II

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If you haven’t read Part I, click here.

Okay, so you have decided that your store will help to build the Faith instead of dismantling it. You’re not done. What is the goal of your store? Is it to just be open and hope that people come in? Is it to support a local parish? Is it to help build the Faith for the whole town? Is it focused on homeschooling resources? If you don’t have a focus and don’t write it down, you won’t be able to really grow well because you won’t have a target to aim for. If you don’t write it down, your employees won’t be able to help you achieve the goal and may work against it without even knowing it.

Once you have written down your goal, you need an action plan. This plan should have a list of goals and milestones to achieving them. You should also list specific dates for completion, specific steps necessary to achieving the goals and the person responsible for taking those steps. Next is the hardest part.

Once you have a nice chart with your goals, milestones and actions, you actually have to hold yourself accountable and do them. I know that getting on top of the day-to-day business is a daunting task but if you ever want your business to grow in a planned manner, you have to find time to work on the business.

If you find it impossible to do this, you need to get a business coach. A business coach is someone who isn’t an employee and can hold you accountable for your business. He will also help you come up with ideas for improving your business and should have a network of people he can recommend to assist you as well (accountants, lawyers, etc.) Even if you think that you have a handle on everything, unless you are happy with the current state of your business and don’t plan on growing it, I recommend looking into getting an outside coach to help you.

What is Your Quest? – Part I

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Actually, what’s your purpose as a Catholic bookstore? Do you really have a reason for being in business? Apart from selling Catholic stuff, why do you do what you do?

If you don’t have an answer, I strongly suggest finding a purpose. Once you do, you will find that you start coming up with a lot more ideas on how to improve and promote your store.

Good Faith Guarantee LogoFirst, I would propose that anyone who opens a Catholic store needs to decide that they are really opening a Catholic store. The first, and only reason that I can think of to justify opening a Catholic store is that you want to strengthen the Faith. This sounds like it should be obvious but it really isn’t. Take a look around your store or think about other stores you have visited. Do all of the products in the store help to strengthen the Faith? Are there products in the store that contradict the Faith or muddy what the Faith is? If so, the store is contributing to its own and the Church’s downfall.

This may sound harsh but it is true. If you truly want to run a Catholic store it has to be Catholic. Otherwise you are helping to sow seeds of confusion and dissention. Selling books by authors such as Fr. McBrien, Fr. Greeley, Sr. Chittister, Anthony deMelo, etc. may bring you a certain type of customer for a while but you will find that eventually this audience will shrink and vanish because these authors present views antithetical to the Faith and people that buy in to these authors’ views will eventually leave the Church or stay on as aging dissidents who don’t have much use for Catholic stuff and certainly won’t be passing the Faith on to their children. If you don’t believe me, just look at the destruction of the religious orders that adopted dissenting views after Vatican II. Most are either gone or have so few young vocations that they won’t be around 50 years from now. If you don’t hold to the Faith, there is no reason to stay in business or recruit for vocations or be evangelistic.

So, what do I do once I decide that I want my store to build up the Faith? (Part II)

Preparing Your Catholic Store for Summer – Thinking About Promotion

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It’s almost that time – the time between First Communion season and Christmas when there seems to be a vast span of days where the customers only trickle in. This year, instead of gritting your teeth and watching your bottom line fall through the floor, be proactive and do something about it. Here are some tips to get you through the summer.

  1. Hold book fairs at parishes. It’s free advertising and if you tithe part of the proceeds to the parish, you build goodwill.
  2. Write an article for your local Catholic paper. Things have slowed down so take some time to write something interesting for your Catholic paper. Make sure your byline mentions your store. If you write well, maybe you could be a regular columnist.
  3. Ask your local Catholic paper to write an article about your store. Don’t laugh, they might do it. I asked our local paper to write an article about the three Catholic stores in town and they agreed. I used the interview as an opportunity to showcase what sets us apart from the other stores. Talk about great free advertising!
  4. Check your prices. I know this is tedious, but if you don’t keep up with vendor price changes, your bottom line is vanishing. We have received several letters from jewelry vendors lately saying that prices are going up. If you haven’t received these notices, call them and ask what changes are coming and when they start. Also, take a look at the pricing on other products. Are you undercharging for some items?
  5. Start a book or movie discussion group at the store. Local parishes will likely give you free advertising in their bulletins for events like this and you get more customers.
  6. Get an online store. I personally recommend the Aquinas and More Storefront Program as a quick and comparatively inexpensive way to get your store on the Internet. 80% of our sales are from the Web! Imagine what a website has the potential to do for your store.

I hope these tips will prove useful as you start the summer.

God bless,

Ian Rutherford, President
Aquinas and More Catholic Goods
Rebuilding Catholic culture one soul at a time.