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Christian Retailer Joins Web Rush
By Lisa Singhania   Associated Press
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — People buying Bibles seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Readers around the world reviewing Christian books and discussing bestsellers with one another. All of this is possible online and that is why Family Christian Stores envisions the Internet as the future of Christian retailing.

Executives of the nation's largest Christian retail chain have created iBelieve.com, a Web site offering everything from marital and financial advice to religious books, videos and testimonials.

"It's a real blend of a business and a ministry," said Les Dietzman, chief executive of the Grand Rapids-based business.

iBelieve.com is not the first e-commerce site to cater to Christians. But it's one of just a handful whose investors are not evangelists _ they're venture capitalists looking to get a piece of an industry worth an estimated $3 billion.

"We look for rapidly growing businesses ... that have the ability to realize value for our investors," said Benjamin Chereskin of Madison Dearborn Partners, the Chicago-based firm that is a majority owner of Family Christian Stores and iBelieve.com.

Surveys show as many as 90 million Americans attend church regularly, and customers who shop at Christian stores tend to be Protestant, college-educated and have household incomes of more than $40,000.

Chereskin said the Christian market is underserved and has tremendous money-making potential. "We hope and expect to make a profit before the next five years."

Among iBelieve.com's competitors in Christian e-commerce is iChristian.com, a Beaverton, Ore., business backed by Softbank, a prominent high-tech investment company. iChristian.com co-founder Guy Coleman said he expects the Christian market to be worth as much as $6 billion by 2004, and it's up to Christian retailers like himself to make sure customers' spiritual needs are fulfilled.

Dietzman expects iBelieve.com will also appeal to customers unfamiliar with Christian products: "I think the Internet's a great place for people who wouldn't be caught dead in a Christian store to shop," he said.

But having the right products is only part of the equation, said Jim Datovech of ComVersant, an Internet consulting firm. A site must be fast, easy to use and provide excellent customer service, he said. It must have a distinctive approach to e-retailing to stand out from its competitors and win loyal customers.

Along that line, iBelieve.com is using some of the strategies that general retailers have adopted to combine online and traditional retailing. It plans to install Internet kiosks in branches of Family Christian Stores, which at 350 stores in 39 states is the largest Christian retail chain in the country. The Family Christian Stores' existing Web site will eventually link to iBelieve.com.

Another challenge for the sites will be balancing their Christian values with the pressures of the for-profit world, according to James L. Nolan, director of Georgetown University's Woodstock Business Conference, which studies the relationship between business and faith.

With that in mind, Family Christian Stores executives made sure Madison Dearborn understood their commitment to Christian values before ever entering into any agreement, according to Dietzman.

But the true test of the Web sites' success will be profit and, in a world of increasingly competitive dot-coms, Christian retailers acknowledge they have a difficult task. Like any online business, they face competition from other Internet retailers including Web department store Amazon.com, as well as those who do business the old-fashioned way.

"We have a bookstore at the church I work at," said Piper Williams of Holland, who estimates she spends about $200 a year buying books and other Christian items. "I can get whatever I want, and it's just easier that way."

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