Online is where the action is

Early results of Christmas retail sales contained important information for faith communities.

In the weekend after Thanksgiving, in-store sales started the Christmas selling season flat – up just 0.3%, according to one early report. Online sales, by contrast, were booming. On the closely watched Friday after Thanksgiving, online sales volume surged 16%, with more people visiting e-commerce sites and spending 12% more per transaction.

On so-called “Cyber Monday,” when technology sales were expected to be the focus, online sales jumped 19%, with transactions up an average 8%.

An analyst for IBM Coremetrics said, “We’re watching online retail, and increasingly social media and mobile, become the growth engines for retailers everywhere as consumers embrace online shopping not only for its ease and convenience, but as a primary means of researching goods and services.”

This seems to confirm a bet Wal-Mart is said to have made a few years ago, when it concluded its future lay in Web sales. High-end retailer Saks, given up for dead two years ago, has surged back to life largely because of online sales.

Another nugget from recent sales data: sales of e-readers are surging, and are moving beyond 20- and 30-something male early adopters and into the 35-plus female market, says Bain & Co.

What do those numbers mean for churches? A lot.

Online is where the action is. In sales, as these numbers show, and in book-selling, movie rentals, higher education, auto shopping, academic research, to name a few.

To be relevant in a Web world, churches need a dynamic online presence that enables people to do whatever they need to do, from checking schedules to paying pledges to watching sermon videos to sharing a virtual class to chatting to worshiping remotely.

A new talent pool is appearing: tech-savvy entrepreneurs, male and female, who know how to start businesses, go from dream to reality, create teams, work hard without immediate payoff, take risks, and learn from failure. Those are precisely the skills our churches need in leadership.

As “virtual” comes to seem as real as any other reality, churches can leverage resources by offering virtual classes, holding virtual meetings, and using social media tools to nurture awareness and community sensitivity, as well as marketing.

One critical implication: if bricks-and-mortar no longer seems essential in formerly high-touch fields like education and sales, faith communities can make the break from operations dominated by Sunday morning on-site worship and begin to meet people where they are.

“Mainstream,” you see, has diversified. Much of it is still high-touch, but more and more, mainstream is online.