Family Christian’s Failure: The View From the Mason, Ohio Store

By Tom Gilson Published on March 7, 2017

Thursday morning, February 23, my wife, Sara, texted me from her job at Family Christian Stores. “Don’t tell anyone,” she wrote, “but I will be looking for a new job.”

I got in touch with her right away. She said they’d been hearing from other stores that “some people” had come in with store liquidation signs. Two employees were told, “You’re done here. You can go home.”

That was their first clue. If you thought it was surprising when you heard Family Christian Stores were closing, you don’t know the half of it.

Family Christian Stores No More

The word went out to the news media by 3:00 that afternoon. Before the next morning the corporation had legally ceased to exist, its headquarters shut down, its former holdings in the hands of the Great American Group for liquidation. My wife had to file new employment paperwork, as she was no longer employed by the now-nonexistent Family Christian. Only the signs remained. Once the warehouse is emptied and the stores cleared out, operations will presumably cease altogether. (That date has not been announced.)

“A Light Going Out Across the Country”

Visiting the store after that felt like going to a funeral home. Employees were in grief. I overheard one telling a customer on the phone, “Yes, I know it’s shocking. We were shocked, too. … I know it’s surprising. … It was the same for us. … No, you can’t use your Family Christian discount card any longer. We are no longer Family Christian. … Yes, it’s confusing. There isn’t anything we can do about it.”

One long-time customer told me, “It’s like a light going out around the country — access to God and His word.” Another said, “I am so grieved.” Another asked, “Where are we going to go now?” It’s one thing to buy a book at Amazon.com. It’s another thing to find someone who can guide you to the exact large-print study Bible that meets your needs. Or who can pray with you when you come in looking for a book on divorce, death and dying, or how to help a friend struggling with addiction.

That’s the light that’s going out in 240 stores across the country. Chuck Bengochea, the departing CEO, laid the blame on the book publishing economy and the corporation’s inability to strike good enough deals with vendors. The view from my wife’s store in Mason, Ohio, near Cincinnati, makes me wonder if that’s really the whole story.

(I tried to contact Bengochea and was told that the corporation’s former executive leaders were not reachable for comment, and that media were being directed to his written statement.)

The View From One Store: Poor Business Practices

If you’ve been to a Family Christian Store lately (before the shutdown, that is), chances are good the store associate urged you to subscribe to the online Christian teaching resource iDisciple. They had to. According to Mason store personnel, who assured me it was a corporate-wide policy, associates’ continuing employment depended on selling iDisciple subscriptions — and hardly anything else. Other metrics were recorded, but the word was out: sell iDisciple or lose your job. Sara and I prayed every day that she’d sell at least one iDisciple.

Wholly owned by the Family Christian Stores parent corporation, iDisciple is a fine teaching resource, and its proceeds were directed toward humanitarian aid. Nevertheless it’s strange and counterproductive for a retail store to hold each individual accountable to one limited performance measure.

Teamwork?

Good teamwork means encouraging each person to function in their strengths. God made us all different, after all. One of the Mason store associates store was simply brilliant at selling iDisciples. Others were quick at doing Bible imprints. My wife excelled at helping people find what they wanted to buy, and building customer loyalty through caring customer service on the floor.

Imagine telling basketball players they can stay on the team if they score enough points from the right side of the key — and that’s it. Assists and rebounds don’t matter, even scoring from the left side or the baseline doesn’t matter. Just the one thing. That’s not far from what Family Christian Stores did by basing employment so exclusively on iDisciple sales.

Could this have contributed to their failure? Scripture tells us we reap what we sow: we get returns based on what we focus on in life. Through its employee rewards structure, Family Christian appears to have been sowing to iDisciple, to the detriment of overall store health.

Missing a Golden Opportunity To Learn

Seeing this, and knowing the store was trying to recover from a previous bankruptcy (in 2015), I contacted one of the store’s vice-presidents with an offer to share ideas from an organizational psychology perspective, in which I hold a master’s degree. They declined.

They didn’t need my advice, anyway. They might have been able to learn it all internally.

Under an excellent new manager, Amy Rainey, during that year-and-a-half the Mason store’s ranking rose from the abysmal ranking of 237 out of 240 stores to number 1 last November. I asked Mrs. Rainey whether the corporation had sent anyone there to inquire into the reasons for their success. She simply said, “No.”

What they would have learned, had they done the study, was that she was a student of her store associates’ skills and motivations. She learned what they did best and gave them freedom to do it. As much as possible she resisted writing them up for not selling the required iDisciples. She let them function as a team.

Her district manager called the team “quirky.” At least he knew enough not to argue with success. It seems to me there’s a scriptural principle of gaining wisdom from experience that was overlooked there, however.

When I asked Mrs. Rainey what kind of management training she had received, she told me “none.” She was doing well enough without it. The chain’s closure indicates that was not so true everywhere else.

A Sign, Yes — But of What?

The last customer I spoke with that day was a tough-looking construction worker with his arm in a sling following shoulder surgery. He was there comparing a Greek-English interlinear Bible with a selection of high-quality study Bibles. (Try that on Amazon!) He said to me, “This is so sad. It’s a sign of the times. There are fewer of us all the time.”

I agree with him: It’s a sign of something — I’m just not sure what.

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