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
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
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."