The Closing of Cokesbury Stores Part 3

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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.

In previous posts, I talked about some of the reasons why the United Methodist Publishing House (UMPH) made the hard decision to close its Cokesbury brick-and-mortar retail stores. I started this three-part series on the closing of the Cokesbury stores with an analysis of very real market pressures to frame the discussion. In the second post I referenced actions UMPH took to attempt to avoid eliminating the bookstore chain. In this post, I will cover what else UMPH might have done to avoid the elimination of the bookstore chain. This is very much an enterprise in “armchair quarterbacking,” even for a former manager of the Seattle Cokesbury bookstore. People have different opinions on what could have been done differently, and if you ask some of the other managers, I am sure you will get a variety of answers. Nevertheless, this post will focus on my own perceptions of what could have been done differently, and my own efforts to increase sales at the Seattle Cokesbury store.

Cokesbury’s Clientele

          It the previous post I mentioned how Cokesbury made efforts to expand to the conservative evangelical market. Now I will look at Cokesbury’s relationship to various mainline Protestant denominations in more detail and how things could have been done differently. UMPH is “a publisher and distributor to the United Methodist Church (UMC) and the greater Christian community.” I felt for a long time that Cokesbury needed to further expand its outreach beyond the UMC. The Pacific Northwest has one of the largest populations of people who identify with no specific religious tradition in the US, making it a challenging marketplace for a denomination-based bookstore.  My store could not have survived with only UMC customers. There may have been a few stores that could, but I suspect that most Cokesbury branches relied heavily on non-UMC clientele. Doubtless, much of that has to do with regions of the country that have lesser concentrations of United Methodists than others.

UMPH saw the opportunity to reach a broader audience, and partnerships were negotiated with the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in 1995, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 2001, and the Episcopal Church in the US (ECUSA) in 2011. While these alliances helped reach new clientele, I felt more could be done to make Cokesbury welcoming for other Christian traditions. In 2004, I took the initiative to communicate my concerns in this regard with Neil Alexander, the President and Publisher of UMPH. At that time, Cokesbury was the official supplier for the PCUSA and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I felt that the mindset of some at UMPH in Nashville was that Cokesbury primarily served the UMC and the greater Christian community was an afterthought. It is as if there are two ways of looking at Cokesbury if you are a non-UMC customer. The first is if you think of going to the United Methodist bookstore to find the resources they also carry for your denomination. The second is if you look at going to Cokesbury because you know they will have resources for your denomination and others as well. There is a difference between the two sentiments. With the first, you might not feel quite as comfortable, while the second speaks of a much higher level of comfort.

Out of fairness, I should add that while I perceived a more parochial mindset at UMPH in Nashville, this is not to say that it was entirely so. There is the position of “strategic alliance manager” Linda Bruner, who works directly with the aforementioned denominational partnerships. Linda has been a great resource for me at UMPH in Nashville with regard to my efforts to best utilize Cokesbury’s partnerships at my store. UMPH has certainly taken its denominational alliances seriously, even if maintaining an overemphasis on UMC clientele.

As the Seattle store manager, I was passionate about making Cokesbury welcoming for as many different Christian traditions as possible. There were subtle institutional biases that could make Cokesbury stores less inviting to the greater Christian community, but it didn’t take much effort on my part to minimize or eliminate much of that in my store. One example was how products were categorized. I found it out-of-place that some official UMC resources were to be shelved amongst the general merchandise instead of in the denomination-specific section. The United Methodist Hymnal, for example, was classified as a general music book, while the Presbyterian Hymnal and Evangelical Lutheran Worship were classified as denominational products. This resonates with what I mentioned, that a categorization scheme like that might provide new customers with the impression that Cokesbury is a United Methodist bookstore that may have products for other Christian traditions as well. I chose to make the categorization scheme consistent and put United Methodist-specific resources in the UMC section of the store. In this way, I felt that the store was as inviting as possible to people from across the spectrum of Christian faith traditions. I feel that if the method of locating all denomination-specific resources within the corresponding denominational categories were to have been made consistent across the entire chain, it might have helped to make Cokesbury more inviting to a broader audience and increase our sales to various denominations.

Ironically, this categorization method was used for some resources at Cokesbury with the opposite effect. The UMC is a Wesleyan denomination, but it is not the only one. My roots go back through the Church of the Nazarene, which is also Wesleyan. When I first discovered Cokesbury as a student attending Nazarene Theological Seminary, I was pleased to hear of its United Methodist connection. What surprised me was that I could initially find no Wesleyan theological resources in the theology section of the store. I eventually discovered that they were all located within the UMC denominational section, including some works published by the Nazarene Publishing House. That left me feeling like the UMC felt it, and it alone, was the “true” heir of the theology of John Wesley. It did not make me feel very welcome. I have met many welcoming United Methodist clergypersons during my time working for Cokesbury, and I wished to reciprocate the welcome for all customers at my store. When I came to work for Cokesbury, I had any Wesleyan resource that wasn’t specifically geared to a United Methodist understanding of Wesleyanism shelved elsewhere in the store. If this were to have been made consistent across the chain, it might have helped other Wesleyan denominations to find Cokesbury to be a very welcoming supplier for their needs as well.

In order to make Cokesbury welcoming to non-UMC customers there were some inventory management issues that needed to be handled at the local level. I and other managers across the chain would order additional denomination-specific resources for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, and others, depending on the demographics of the area where the stores were located. There are enough similarities among the different mainline denominations that, given Cokesbury’s official partnerships with four mainline denominations (UMC, PCUSA, DOC, and ECUSA), many of the general resources we carried could work for any or all of them. There is a good deal of crossover appeal on books stocked in Cokesbury stores published by Abingdon Press, Westminster/John Knox Press, Chalice Press, Church Publishing Incorporated, Pilgrim Press, Fortress Press, Judson Press and others. An important issue for many mainline Protestant churches in the Pacific Northwest was how they could be welcoming to LGBTQ persons of faith. To assist in these efforts, I set aside a section for books on LGBTQ issues in my store, and kept it up-to-date.

I don’t know how much of an impact everything I was doing had, as it isn’t easy to quantify. When I was manager the Seattle store, sales more often than not, exceeded UMPH expectations. As good as that might sound, it really means that our sales weren’t declining as fast as anticipated. I know I wasn’t the only UMPH employee to place great value on reaching out to other mainline Protestant customers. While I was passionate about making the Seattle Cokesbury store more inviting to non-UMC customers, I wish that UMPH could have done more to support and expand upon these efforts. I don’t know if it would have been enough to avoid the closing of the stores, but institutionalizing efforts to reach and support other denominations may have had a significant impact.

Location

          The location of many Cokesbury stores, including mine, was not helpful for attracting new customers. Store locations were frequently in poorly visible storefronts with minimal signage, making them not conducive to walk-in customers. A frequent comment we would get from new customers would be, “I drive by here all the time and never knew you were here!” Cokesbury stores were primarily “destination stores.” That meant people went to Cokesbury because they wanted to go specifically to Cokesbury, not because they happened upon it. Store customers were mostly church professionals (clergypersons, Christian educators, chaplains, other church employees, and volunteers in ministry) who knew about the store through their denomination. Most laypersons, regardless of denomination, would not be aware of their local Cokesbury store simply because they never saw it. Even after UMPH expanded our merchandise selection to appeal to more laypersons, sales did not expand dramatically because the store was not in a good location for people to find us.

Of course, one way to attract more layperson traffic would be to locate a store where those new customers are likely to come by. When I talked with Neil Alexander in October 2012 about this, he said Cokesbury had tried having a presence in a mall-type setting, but it didn’t work out well. A setting like that would cater to new clientele at the expense of much of Cokesbury’s regular customers who want to avoid the hassle of negotiating a large shopping mall. Cokesbury needed locations that would be easy to access for existing customers, but would also attract walk-in traffic. With that in mind, I wrote a proposal in August 2012 to relocate the Seattle store to a place that would draw in new customers without sacrificing the existing ones. It is a very expensive proposition to relocate a store. Cokesbury had a lot of stores with leases of varying lengths, and a few stores where UMPH owned the property. It would take a long time to implement the number of necessary store relocations.  In any case, my proposal came too late, as on November 5th we were told that all the stores would be closing. If this idea had been implemented much earlier, and applied to the multitude of stores in similar situations, it may have made a difference, though we’ll never know if it could have been enough to help prevent the stores from closing.

Advertising

          This leads to what I believe was the greatest missed opportunity for the Cokesbury bookstore chain. Outside of relocating the stores, how do you attract new customers? Most of Cokesbury’s advertising went to existing customers and those people who would allow their information to be added to the customer database during a visit to a Cokesbury store. While UMPH does not sell customer information to other advertisers, it also does not elicit contact information for potential new customers from external sources. As I mentioned in the previous post, UMPH was expanding its product selection to reach out to the more conservative evangelical market. However, it does no good to have great products designed to reach a new demographic without finding a way to communicate to them that you have resources they would like.

The main method UMPH used to reach new customers with some type of advertising related to the job of the key account manager. Nearly all of the full-line (non-seminary) stores had someone in that position. One of the functions of the key account manager was to do church visitations in order to let churches know about the resources Cokesbury had to offer. They could drop off advertising materials and discuss them directly with church staff. My assistant (key account) manager Nancy Apple used her church visitation schedule to reach out to Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and United Church of Christ customers and others to broaden our customer base. These visitations would come during the week and would naturally be directed to church professionals rather than the average layperson. Key account managers were also expected to visit churches with which we already did a fair amount of business. I thought Nancy struck a good balance between visiting potential and existing customers. While I had a great key account manager, I do not feel that the entire burden of advertising to potential new customers could have reasonably been delegated to the work of the key account managers across the chain. It also does not address how to reach new customers that are laypersons.

I do not know all the factors involved in why more wasn’t done with regard to advertising at UMPH, but my perception was that it wasn’t enough. Again, who knows if finding new ways to advertise would have made a large enough contribution to sales to help save the stores, but it was an area of opportunity that might have made a difference.

So What If?

          Could the stores have been saved? I honestly don’t know. I suspect that the world is changing so fast that any large organization finds it challenging to continually adapt to the ever-evolving marketplace. Cokesbury stores might have expanded their customer base more by making the stores more inviting to non-UMC clientele. We might have increased outreach to laypersons through improved store locations. UMPH might have boosted sales through expanding advertising beyond current customers to include potential customers. Again, it might have worked. None of us can ever know if any of these factors would have been enough to overcome the changes and challenges the bookselling market is facing.

I loved my job and I love Cokesbury, so I did not like the decision to close all of the stores. However, I trust those in charge at UMPH, so I am confident they seriously entertained any idea coming to them that would help to keep the stores viable. The issues discussed here are my perceptions. Doubtless there were other factors behind the scenes at UMPH in Nashville that I was not privy to with regard to what they may have been doing to address some or all of the issues raised here. This is only my perspective.

The End

         Many of the factors that necessitated closing the Cokesbury stores have been evolving over time. Some were able to be accommodated, others required larger shifts in focus, and still others were entirely out of UMPH’s control or influence. These factors required a major shift in both the culture and priorities of the organization, which takes a great deal of time to accomplish. I’m not sure anyone, myself included, was thinking of so radical a change when these trends began to emerge. Whether it’s a case of lack of foresight, too little too late, or a changing climate that Cokesbury just doesn’t fit into anymore, no one can tell. In any case, all the Cokesbury brick and mortar stores have closed as of May 1, 2013. It is a sad event for bibliophiles everywhere, but a necessary evil in a changing world.

I am grateful for the time I spent in ministry working for Cokesbury. Recently a person asked me why, since I have a seminary degree, I didn’t do anything with it like becoming a pastor. God called me to a different sort of full-time service. I used what I learned in seminary working for the ministry that was, is, and continues to be Cokesbury. I am sad that I will no longer be a part of Cokesbury, but I hope there will be a bright future for the United Methodist Publishing House. Check out Cokesburynext.com for more details on the new direction for Cokesbury, and keep following my blog to see where God leads me next.

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© 2013 Lee Karl Palo

leekarlpalo@gmail.com

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