Shoppers, including church shoppers, are going online

How should congregations respond to consumers’ changing behaviors?

The Wall Street Journal reports that the number of visits people make to malls and big box stores during the holiday season is half the number reported three years earlier.

The data firm ShopperTrak tracked declines of 28.2% in 2011, 16.3% in 2012 and 14.6% in 2013, the Journal reported. Overall holiday sales are better because of two related trends -- shoppers start online and often come to the store with the purchase in mind or a small but growing number purchase online. Taken together these behaviors lead to few visits to stores. Some analysts believe that something fundamental has shifted in American shopping habits.

The trend seems similar to what I hear reported in the church world. Once upon a time, pastor search committees traveled from church to church listening to the prospective pastors and interviewing them in their home communities. Today, many committees watch worship services online and conduct video interviews. I know of committees that made no site visits and conducted all face-to-face interviews in their own community.

Visitors to the congregation do the same. Those shopping for a church frequently visit the congregation online by watching services, reading about services and asking questions. The final step is to attend events or services.

The trend of using the virtual world to do research, make preliminary judgments and prepare for face-to-face encounters seems well established. It begs the question: How do we adjust our strategies to account for this behavior?

Macy’s department store, the Journal reported, is rethinking “its brick-and-mortar stores to make them more productive by serving online sales…. For instance, the department store chain has converted more than half its 840 physical stores to be able to fulfill online orders. That allowed it to keep the majority of its inventory of popular cashmere sweaters on store shelves and in front of customers during the holidays, rather than stocking them in faraway warehouses.”

Congregations might respond to this trend by building a better website. But in a move similar to Macy’s we might have to go further and carefully review all the face-to-face meetings of a congregation to make the experiences as meaningful as possible.

Perhaps we handle some committee busy work through email ballots and consent agendas and create space for conversation about soul searching questions of meaning. What about structuring educational offerings so that the lecture information is presented online and the seminar time is for questions, case studies and personal sharing?

With the unrelenting pace of change and the vast expansion of available information, it can be difficult to sort through everything and identify the trends to which we should pay significant attention. Last year my colleague Greg Jones identified seven such deep trends. As a result, I keep my eye out for news about the digital world and how it might be shaping human behavior. What are you watching? How is it shaping your thinking? What experiments are you sponsoring?