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What the Slow Death of Retail Can Tell Us About the Future Church

As you may have noticed, malls are not what they used to be. Retail as we’ve known it is slowly dying before our eyes.

As some major news outlets (themselves in transition) have outlined, malls are closing, formerly dominant chains are in decline, and flagship stores are changing.

All of this has implications for how we accomplish our mission as a church.  While the dust hasn’t settled by any means, only leaders with their heads in the sand would ignore what’s happening in front of our eyes.

Wise church leaders change their approach to not just preserve the mission of the church, but to advance it

death of retail

My recent frustration

I recently wanted to pick up a garment bag for travel purposes. I thought that rather than wait for shipping, I’d drop support my local mall, which at this point I only visit a handful of times a year.

The mall I chose is the premiere mall in our region. The mall has over half a million square feet of retail space.

You’d think I would have had a good experience and walked out with a garment bag.

Only three stores carried luggage. And among those 3 stores, there were quite literally 3 garment bags.

Think about that. Half a million square feet. 3 options, which took 60 minutes to find as I walked from one end of the mall to the other and store to store.

In two out of those three stores, the staff were nowhere to be found (I was told by one person I chased down that it was not her department).

They kicked me out of one store 5 minutes before closing. The staff was clearly more interested in getting home than making a sale.

Guess what I did?

Ordered one from Amazon instead.

And people wonder why retail is dying.

The point is not to vent my frustration, but to think through the implications for the church of the massive cultural shift from physical retail to online retail that our culture is experiencing.

Here are 5 things the church can learn from the slow death of retail as we know it.

1. Inconvenience has to be overcome by reward

The inconvenience of retail has to be overcome by the reward of the experience.

Think about it, to attend anything physically you need to:

Budget anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours of time

Drive there

Ensure you have enough fuel to get there and back (how many times do you end up filling up your car?)

Find a parking space

Initiate your own personal search for the object you want

Manually sort out pricing, brands and options

Track down sales people to help you

Pay for your purchase

Haul it home

When I got home, I literally did 10 minutes of searching on Amazon without leaving my couch and bought my bag. It’s being delivered to my door.

Bottom line

If retail is going to survive, inconvenience has to be overcome by reward.

Implication for church leaders

The reward of attending your church has to overcome the inconvenience of attending it.

If you make people battle traffic and busy schedules to attend a sub-par, impersonal experience at your church, people won’t bother.

2. Online options are actually real options

I realize until current generations die off, people will say things like

I will never give my credit card to anyone online

I prefer the retail experience

Nothing online is real anyway

But those views are increasingly a minority. Among Millennials, online shopping is widely accepted, normal and growing annually. I’m not even close to being a Millennial, and I buy most of what I purchase online.

Bottom line

If you have a frustrating, uncertain and expensive option for getting what you want (retail), why would you choose it over something that’s simple, convenient and actually less expensive (online)?

Implication for church leaders

Today, people have a sea of online options for sermons. Anyone who attends your local church can listen to Steven Furtick, Perry Noble, Craig Groeschel, Louie Giglio, Joyce Meyers, Joel Oosten or Andy Stanley any time they want for free.  And many do.

Not only can they listen to other pastors preach, but they can be ‘involved’ in their congregation through church online.

You can argue all day long about whether this is good or bad. Here’s the reality: it’s happening.

I outlined the pros and cons of online church in this post, but the reality is this: online is here to stay. The internet is not going away any time soon.

When someone offers a better option than you provide, people will choose it.

3. Your people are your search engine

Everyone who shops at a mall is looking for something.

The difference between physical retail and online shopping is that in a mall, your people are your search engine—not some algorithm.

The challenge for retail is that their sales force is a dwindling number of people who are paid minimum wage to do a job most don’t care about.

When you show up at mall (or even car dealership) to buy something, it’s not unusual to meet sales people who

know less about the product than you do AND

care less about the product than you do.

This is a major problem.

Online options become better options because an algorithm actually produces better answers than “I don’t know” or “we sell a lot of those” or “if we have any they’re over there somewhere.”

A caring associate who is genuinely interested in helping a customer achieve his or her goals will almost always beat an algorithm.

Bottom line

A passionless work force will always lose out to a well designed online retail experience.

When your sales force stops caring, your customers will always find an alternate source.

Implication for church leaders

Every person who walks for your door is looking for something (ultimately, Jesus). Your people are your search engine.

If all you do in your church is replicate the deadened customer service experience most retail places provide, you will kill someone’s search for meaning and faith.

Get your most engaged, thoughtful and intuitive people on guest services.

Find people who can help people take their first step or their next step. Recruit people who realize what’s at stake when anyone walks in the door and who can custom tailor an experience that helps them find what they’re looking for in a style and at a pace that suits them.

This isn’t easy…but it’s so important.

If retail is going to survive, it has to get rid of its I-don’t-care workforce.

If the church is going to thrive, we’re going to put some of best people on the door and in the halls.

A first impression is the last impression some people will ever get.

4. The importance of user reviews

One of the things that really jumps out at me in physical sales experiences is the absence of user reviews.

In the online world, you have full access to user reviews from people who actually bought the product.

When I wrote my latest book, I was careful to craft the message around it. I even got well-known people I knew to endorse it.

But the real test, of course, is the user reviews Amazon encourages. As an author, have zero control over those reviews. If you really want to know what a book, or product is like, read the reviews.

In a physical retail space, all you have is what the product says about itself and what the sale person says about it, both of which are inherently biased—unless, of course, you get an exceptional sales person (and exceptions means they tell you the truth, even if it might cost them the sale).

Bottom line

In the emerging culture, people trust what others say about you more than they trust what you say about you.

Implication for church leaders

Facebook provides a tremendous opportunity for church people to post user reviews of their experience at your church.

You can stand up on a Sunday and encourage people to do it.

The other option you have is with your guest services team. Encourage them to speak personally to guests about their experience at your church.

Obviously, there’s a bias, but every guest realizes that unlike the pastor and church staff, your volunteers are not getting a pay check.

As a result, people will tend to trust their opinion even a little more than the staff’s opinion.

So let your people talk openly and honestly about their experience. If you’re worried because it’s a bad experience, then get to work as a leader and change the experience for everyone.

5. The middle is disappearing

If you look at many malls today, the middle is disappearing.

One of the stores where I used to buy my shirts is now a calendar store.

And that’s on trend. Stores are either becoming more high end or more low end.

The low end will be driven by price.

The high end stores will be driven by experience, excellent service and unique products.

Bottom line

As the middle disappears, opportunities open on either end of the spectrum.

Implication for church leaders

The implications for church leaders are a little more difficult to see in this instance, but they’re there.

No, we’re not selling a product. And no, we don’t cater to the rich.

The stores that are driven by price make something accessible to people who can’t otherwise afford something.

Our message is free, and our experience should always be open to everyone.

But there’s no reason in the world we can’t take the best of a high end experience (relationship, personal attention, perks) and make them available to everyone.

Our guest services team at Connexus Church brings umbrellas into the parking lot and escorts people from their cars on rainy days.

On snowy days, sometimes they’ll clean people’s windshields of snow before church lets out.

Those are touches you’d be surprised to see at high end retail, but we offer them to everyone.

We also have special parking for first time guests and single moms.  And our guest services team is trained to escort people to their environments rather than point.

We offer a concierge type service called the “Next Steps Kiosk” where we help people figure out what their personal next step might be: baptism, getting into a small group, taking Starting Point, serving or whatever it is. That team is trained to listen, and try to come up with a solution that best fits where that person is at.

The point?

It’s personal.

It’s caring.

It’s relational.

Great conversations get struck when you offer this kind of personal attention to people. And, we think, it reflects the way God relates to his people.

When you treat people personally, they’ll be more likely to engage relationally.

What Do You See?

Those are some learnings for church leaders I see as we watch retail slowly die.

If you want more, I wrote a free 5 part series about the future church you can access beginning with this post10 Reasons Even Committed Church Attenders Are Attending Less Often.

In the meantime, what are you seeing? Scroll down and leave a comment!

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  • K6pence

    A topic very near to my heart. Spent countless hours discussing this with friends and colleagues. I cannot see how the model of people gathering for 70 minutes on a Sunday morning to mindlessly sing a few choruses and hymns, then listen to an old white guy flap his gums about Ephesians 2 with a thesaurus in one hand, has any future.
    Regarding your first point, I have to wonder what that “reward” is that overcomes the inconvenience. I feel that in order for the church to really engage with its community, we have to look for, and act on, more opportunities to serve, and become the hands of Jesus in our world. When our communities see that they are served by the church, and can find a place to serve others, that will open up a whole new world of evangelism. Sitting behind our closed doors waiting for the world to come to us is simply not working.
    People want a sense of belonging and importance, and that becomes the “reward.”

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  • Carey, these are all on point, but it’s #5 that’s been gnawing at me for some time. Having pastored “middle” churches for nearly 20 years, I can tell you for sure the middle is a tough gig. Clearly, the “high end” is growing. But, to use your retail analogy, whose serving the “discount” clients in the church world? I see lots of churches being created for the people who shop at Nortstrom. Whose creating congregations for the people who shop at the Dollar Store? Regardless of generation, that seems to be the fastest growing demographic in our culture–the working poor.

  • Jason Fitch

    Thanks again Carey! Your blogs are consistently great reads, but this one is like you jumped into my head and ironed out several issues I (and our team) are wrestling with now. Thank you!

    • Thanks Jason. Been thinking about it for a while and I think something fundamental is shifting. Fascinating times we live in.

  • wdavidrice

    Sometimes when you write about things Carey, I feel like my mind is exploding mid-blog post. All of this makes perfect sense to me and actually affirms what I’m telling the good folks in my aging, traditional church (although, you say it MUCH more clearly). The challenge for me is how to care well for those folks who feel threatened by these sorts of changes, rather than energized by them. As a young leader, I’m up for the challenge. But many of my “church veterans” don’t want to entertain the trends you name, simply because it costs them too much to admit that things are not working with our current system. How does a Lead Pastor love people well who don’t want to admit that things are changing culturally, and therefore, our church expression needs to change, or die?

    • Hey David,

      Thanks for asking. Not trying to plug my book Lasting Impact, but there’s a whole chapter in it on exactly your question designed to be read with those veterans to help them see the light.

      The short approach? Bring them back to the vision again and again and help them see how their current approach is outdated and not working.

      Best wishes with it!

  • great insights….wonder what we could learn from the cable companies as well.
    Netflix and Hulu have allowed and binge watching. Do you think people are binge watching sermon series online and considering that “going to church”?