By Lee Karl Palo
© 2013 Lee Karl Palo
Disclaimer: The following represents the opinion of Lee Karl Palo, and does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Cokesbury or the United Methodist Publishing House.
Since other bloggers have brought up the issue of why Cokesbury closed all of its brick-and-mortar retail stores, I thought I would offer my own interpretation as someone who worked for Cokesbury and loved the company. The United Methodist Publishing House (UMPH), has Abingdon Press, the publishing division, and Cokesbury, the retail division. Cokesbury has three retail channels: the call-center in Nashville, Cokesbury.com, and the brick-and-mortar retail stores. I worked at the “Seattle” Cokesbury store in Kirkland, WA, starting as a Sales Associate in 2000, then as the Store Supervisor in 2004, and finally as the Store Manager since 2007. Now that the store has closed (February 16, 2013), I thought I would share my thoughts as to why the decision was made to close all of the retail stores.
The issue is a complicated one, and even though I worked for the company, it does not make me privy to all of the factors involved with the decision. To begin, I would say that while I am not happy about the stores closing, I believe there are some understandable reasons why it happened.
The first and most obvious factor is sales. It is not appropriate for me to disclose any specific financial information, but suffice it to say there has been a trend for a long time now where the stores have had year-on-year sales declines. Sure, there are the occasional stores where sales have exceeded projections, and even prior year sales (my store did that in the 2009-2010 fiscal year). The trend, however, has been consistently downward. It is hard to argue with the numbers, and when there are more and more stores finding it difficult to cover their operating costs, it becomes harder to justify keeping them open. It isn’t good business practice to expect a miracle turnaround.
So why close all the stores? When the stores are closed that could not cover their operating costs, it increases the financial burden on the remaining stores. There are costs associated with store operations related to UMPH store support that are reasonable when divided among about 60 stores, but become burdensome when there are fewer and fewer locations to utilize them. Combine that with year-on-year sales declines, and the remaining stores may not be “in the black” for much longer.
A Changing Marketplace
We live in a changing world, and new technologies are altering the way we do business. Cokesbury.com has seen a huge amount of growth in sales over the last decade, but Cokesbury.com isn’t the only e-tailer out there. A strong marketing message from many retailers is that the only thing that matters is price-point. Businesses that have lower operating costs can discount merchandise beyond what most brick-and-mortar retail stores can. Some have even been known to discount items under their cost in order to attract business away from others. Cokesbury has responded to this challenge by discounting many Abingdon Press and Westminster/John Knox Press books heavily on Cokesbury.com, but can’t afford to do this in higher-overhead retail stores.
A Changing Product
In addition to purchasing options, book formatting has changed over the last decade. E-books have arrived, and changed how people interact with literature. As e-books have become more commonplace, it has had an inverse impact on print sales. A factor churches now have to take into consideration for Bible studies is how many participants will buy the Bible study book as an e-book. Previously churches would purchase print books based only on the total number of persons who signed up for the Bible study.
Cokesbury has operated around 20 Seminary bookstores. Many publishers, including Abingdon Press, are moving toward publishing all textbooks as e-books in the not-so-distant future. Print-on-demand technologies have advanced to the point that any book can be made available in a print form within a relatively short amount of time, so those still wanting a print textbook can get it that way. This reduces the need for on-hand stock of textbooks as well as retail stores to supply them. To state the obvious, you don’t need a brick-and-mortar retail store to buy e-books.
A Changing Church
Cokesbury’s mission is to facilitate the work of the Church. As there have been changes in the marketplace, there have also been changes in the Church. Various Christian denominations as well as non-denominational churches are declining in attendance. It isn’t a stretch to imagine that there is a connection between the vitality of churches and the vitality of businesses dedicated to resourcing those churches. The last week the store was open, my Sales Associate Sue Peebles and I were remarking just how much less dated quarterly children’s curriculum we were selling in 2012 compared with what it was like ten years prior. If sales are an indicator, apparently there are fewer children attending many churches today. This is just one example of how we’ve seen churches requiring fewer resources to service shrinking congregations.
A Changing Cokesbury
With all this change, Cokesbury is adapting as well. It is my suspicion that UMPH made the hard decision to close all of the stores now while there was still time and money enough to be able to invest in new directions and strategies. This is instead of a slow, gradual, process of closing a few stores at a time until all of them had to close. Cokesburynext.com details the new direction for Cokesbury. It is a difficult journey to lose a job you love, but I nevertheless hope Cokesbury will succeed.
In The Closing of Cokesbury Stores Part 2 I will be discussing what was being done by UMPH and what perhaps could have been done to save the Cokesbury brick-and-mortar retail stores.
© 2013 Lee Karl Palo