Originally created 01/25/00

Christian retailers look online for sales



GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- For some believers, the road to heaven may be the information superhighway.

Family Christian Stores, the nation's largest Christian retail chain, has created iBelieve.com, a Web site offering religious books, videos and testimonials, as well as marital and financial advice.

People will be able to buy Bibles seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Readers around the world will be able to review Christian books and discuss best sellers.

"It's a real blend of a business and a ministry," said Les Dietzman, chief executive of the Grand Rapids-based business.

iBelieve.com is not the first e-commerce site to cater to Christians. But it's one of just a few whose investors are not evangelists -- they are venture capitalists looking to get a piece of an industry worth an estimated $3 billion.

Benjamin Chereskin of Madison Dearborn Partners, the Chicago-based firm that is a majority owner of Family Christian Stores and iBelieve.com, said the Christian market has tremendous money-making potential.

"We hope and expect to make a profit before the next five years," he said.

Surveys show as many as 90 million Americans attend church regularly, and customers who shop at Christian stores tend to be Protestant, college-educated and have household incomes of more than $40,000.

Among iBelieve.com's competitors is iChristian.com, a Beaverton, Ore., business backed by Softbank, a high-tech investment company. iChristian.com co-founder Guy Coleman said he expects the Christian market to be worth as much as $6 billion by 2004.

Dietzman expects iBelieve.com will also appeal to new customers: "I think the Internet's a great place for people who wouldn't be caught dead in a Christian store to shop."

iBelieve.com plans to install Internet kiosks in Family Christian stores. Family Christian has 350 stores in 39 states.

It will face competition from the likes of Amazon.com, as well as those who do business the old-fashioned way.

"We have a bookstore at the church I work at," said Piper Williams of Holland, who estimates she spends $200 a year on books and other Christian items. "I can get whatever I want, and it's just easier that way."