Selling, the sole objective: Maximizing the Mormon marketing experience

Associated Press/April 2, 2005
By Leon D'Souza

Five days after the nation's Mormon faithful congregate at the annual conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, another flock of Mormon faithful will assemble at the sprawling South Towne Exposition Center in Sandy.

But they won't be discussing weighty matters of church doctrine and theology, like delegates to the conference this weekend. The 200-plus wholesalers rendezvousing at the LDS Booksellers Association's annual wholesale seminar Friday will ponder how to package their faith into a line of products that will sell to the church's 11 million members worldwide.

So far, insiders say, they haven't been very successful. That's despite the deluge of distinctly Mormon products - from The Essential Mormon Cookbook with its ''secret'' recipes for Green Jell-O and ''funeral potatoes'' to action figures and board games - that have become more common in stores across the West over the past 10 years.

Exact estimates of the Mormon market's net value are hard to come by. The Salt Lake City-based Deseret Book, the largest retailer in the business with 40 full-line bookstores that also sell a range of Mormon merchandise, is privately owned by the LDS church and is tightlipped about its sales.

But Kent Larsen, a New York City accountant and publisher of LDS books, who since 2001 has maintained the Mormon Stock Index - a barometer of companies with Mormons in senior management - puts the market for Mormon merchandise at ''no more than $200 million a year, spread over between 200 and 300 manufacturers and 300 to 500 stores.''

''While no one knows exactly, my guess is that Deseret Book sells possibly $50 million a year,'' Larsen said. Company officials aren't talking.

''I'll tell you that 70 percent of what we carry is core LDS stuff,'' said Deseret Book spokeswoman Gail Halladay. ''But there's no use speculating because the LDS market is a lot bigger than Deseret Book.''

The Mormon market accounts for only a fraction of the net sales of Christian products, pegged at just under $4.2 billion by CBA, formerly the Christian Booksellers Association, the Colorado-based representative organization for Christian retailers.

But what they lack in size, Mormon retailers make up for in stability.

While 36 percent of CBA members reported sales declines in 2004, and 288 Christian retailers closed their doors, the market hasn't cooled for Mormon retailers. Even smaller players, like LDS toymaker Jan Van de Merwe of Cincinnati-based Latter Day Designs, reported steady earnings during the same period.

Van de Merwe, in fact, expanded his part-time Mormon toy business into a full-time venture when his previous employer went bankrupt in the economic slowdown that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks.

''My sales are between $150,000 and $180,000 annually, and they've stayed pretty constant for the last 10 years,'' he said.

Latter Day Designs bills itself as ''the world's premier manufacturer of Book of Mormon figures.'' Each buff-looking vinyl superhero sells for between $4.99 and $9.95 apiece. And for the avid collector, there's also a sleek carrying case that opens up to a three-dimensional temple diorama.

''When I started, we had six figures,'' Van de Merwe said. ''Now we have 20.''

The figurines, which sell at Deseret Book stores across the West, are among the more well-received of Mormon products. There are others that leave some members more than a tad chagrined.

''The bad products range from a 'missionary' bear in a kimono singing 'Kung Fu Fighting' to bad art,'' Larsen said.

But some experts, like R. Laurence Moore, a Cornell University historian and author of Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture, says the casual - if slightly irreverent - tone of certain Mormon products should come as no surprise.

''Historically, for all their supposedly odd ways, Mormons have always had a relaxed outlook,'' Moore said.

''That's the difference between being inside or outside the community. They had the only theater west of the Mississippi, dancing, parties, they read and wrote novels - all at a time when these activities were suspect by more dour Protestant communities.''

The colorful distinctiveness of Mormon merchandise could be a manifestation of that relaxed approach to life, Moore said. The challenge now is to ensure products fly off the shelves. And that's the subject of April's wholesale seminar.

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