Religion is practiced for free, but that does not preclude entrepreneurs from making money on items associated with faith. Serving the faithful, after all, could be considered a specialty business.
Retail outlets selling religious articles are found everywhere, from parish offices to street corners and malls. Tayuman Street in Manila, for instance, is lined with shops selling crucifixes, statues, and even human hair for figures of the Sto. Niño. Among these stores is the Our Lady of Manaoag Religious Articles Shop.
Faith drives many devotees to pay nearly any price for religious items. "They believe that their purchase would one day bless them in return," explained Cornelio Awa, who owns the shop with his wife, Josie.
Not a sure way to profit
Still, banking on belief—or on the sheer number of believers—is not a surefire way to profit, as companies like House of Praise have found out. The Pew Research Center estimated in 2015 data that the Philippines has more than 7.4 million flock from non-Catholic, Christian denominations. But despite such, House of Praise, which distributes Christian music, has failed to break even in the last decade. From 60 branches at its peak, House of Praise is down to six.
To keep up with the times, the owners have decided to convert their music stores to full-service bookstores, even introducing a T-shirt line called Worship Generation, to bring in more sales.
Additionally, “We don’t label [House of Praise] as ‘Christian’ anymore; it’s now more of a family bookstore, as we don’t want to turn away people from other religions,” said Kaye Catral, marketing manager of mother company Praise, Inc. Regulars are mostly collectors of Christian music who buy simply because they like music in general, she added.
As for Our Lady of Manaoag Religious Articles Shop, Awa said sales slack off in June, once enrollment sets in. The dry spell lasts until October, which marks the Holy Rosary Month, and lasts until January, as people buy items to give away as gifts.
Because their religious goals are so enmeshed with the need to turn a profit, sellers need to strike a fine balance between the two.
The Philippine Bible Society (PBS), a religious non-profit organization, practices socialized pricing—based on the standard daily wage—in line with their mission to keep the Bible “available, affordable, and relevant to people,” said PBS General Secretary Dr. Nora Lucero. PBS intends to distribute three million copies of the Bible over the next three years.
Exposure could keep things rolling even during the lean months, Awa said. As such, he occasionally puts up exhibits or partners with churches to advertise his products. “The location gets a percentage of our sales. That may lessen our profit but you can’t just rely on walk-ins all the time.”
Stores outside malls allow customers to haggle or pay under certain terms. “Some of our clients make a down payment as a form of reservation until they are able to complete the full amount,” added Awa.
Praise, Inc., on the other hand, thrives on below-the-line promotions such as emails and broadcast announcements over the company-owned radio station, Energy FM, said Catral.
Some religious items, however, are priced competitively with their secular counterparts. Christian music CDs, for example, retail at P395 ($8.51) to P425 ($9.16). “We have to follow the market standards because we have to pay royalties to labels and artists,” explained Catral. Shirts and other items such as Bibles follow the suggested retail price of its dealers.
Not without its critics
Because the subject is deeply personal, the business of religion can also stir up fierce criticism. Conservative Christians occasionally question the way Praise, Inc. courts customers from other religious denominations, said Catral. “We simply don’t answer [these criticisms] anymore.”
Others may find the entire enterprise as being exploitative of religious belief, but Awa believes otherwise—for him, it is both an act of faith and a decent source of livelihood.
Bernadette is a freelance writer and a news reporter for GMA Network. Follow her on Twitter, @bernadettereyes.
This article was originally published in the March 2014 issue of Entrepreneur Philippines magazine. Minor edits have been done by the Entrepreneur.com.ph editors.