Post-bankruptcy, Family Christian Stores enters holiday season with renewed vision

New signage has been added, along with upgraded fixtures and a Bible study area to the Family Christian Stores located at 3120 28th Street in Grand Rapids. The store has recently upgraded their merchandising approach in the wake of the bankruptcy earlier this year. (Emily Rose Bennett |

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – After a harrowing bankruptcy in which Family Christian Stores barely escaped liquidation, the nation's largest chain of Christian gift and book stores hopes shoppers will find a new experience this holiday season.

The Grand Rapids-based chain, which burned its creditors, suppliers and consignment vendors for more than $100 million in trade debt and merchandise, has a new sense of mission and dedication to its Christian mission, says Chuck Bengochea, the company's president and CEO.

"The reality is that all tough times force you to get better or you lose," said Bengochea. "We have worked hard to repair those vendor relationships that have damaged and worked hard to restore trust.

"It's given us a sense of humility," said Bengochea, whose company operates 258 stores and employs more than 3,000 people in 36 states.

Family Christian filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February, saying its sales have fallen from $305 million in 2008 to $230 million in 2014. Sales are expected to fall to $216 million this year.

The chain shed its debt in August, when Judge John T. Gregg allowed the sale of the company to Family Christian Acquisition for about $55 million.

Family Christian Acquisition is headed by Richard Jackson, a wealthy Atlanta businessman who also headed Family Christian's previous ownership group, which bought the chain in 2012 and converted it into a non-profit. Jackson also heads Family Christian Financing, one of the company's largest creditors.

Despite the insider ties, most of Family Christian's creditors voted to approve the sale to Family Christian Acquisition over two other bids that would have closed all of the stores and sold off the company's assets for pennies on the dollar.

Today, Family Christian Stores have less merchandise, thanks in part to leaner inventories after most of its vendors stopped providing the company with consignment merchandise and held the company to tighter credit terms.

"We were a cluttered experience and we've cleaned that up," Bengochea said. "We want everything in the Family Christian Stores to surprise and delight the customer."

Walking through Family Christian's store at 3120 28th Street SE, Donna Hunter, Family Christian's chief merchandising officer, points out the store displays stock with holiday gift items near the store's entrance.

A chalkboard welcomes customers with a Bible "Verse of the Day" and an opportunity for visitors and employees to add their own inspirational messages.

The store has a larger apparel section, an expanded jewelry section and displays with bath and beauty products that carry Christian-themed labels. "We find our customers really like messaging," Hunter said.

Stenciling on the walls above the displays remind customers of the store's support of non-profit ministries and charities. New carpeting has replaced the concrete floor and the lighting is designed to lead customers to their intended destination.

"Ministry" sections along the wall offer products that specifically benefit a ministry, such as a campaign to provide clean water in third world communities.

The Bible section, a core product line for their stores, are displayed underneath a dropped ceiling on wooden reading tables topped with leather. Chairs invite customers to study their purchase while charts describe and explain the store's Bible translations and their strengths.

While digital Bibles are gaining in popularity, Hunter said the printed Bible is still a mainstay of their industry.

"You still want to hold it," said Hunter. "It's the heritage of our company. It's really what we're about."

To keep the Christian mission front and center, each store employee has been given a 42-page booklet that emphasizes the company's non-profit mission and Christian ministry in 10 principles.

"Our promise is that we'll glorify God by servicing our customers with skilled and selfless services," Bengochea said.

To get customers in the store, Bengochea said Family Christian Stores is relying heavily on e-mail campaigns to previous customers and online promotions.

As they move beyond the holidays, Bengochea said more changes are ahead for the company's website, which will carry more merchandise than the stores.

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