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First Impressions

Debi Nixon

Retailers understand the old adage "you never get a second chance to make a first impression." So the finest retailers do whatever it takes for them to make a favorable first impression the minute you enter their store. If you're not wowed immediately, they've failed.

How about your children's ministry? Would first-time visitors say that you wowed them from the beginning? If not, you may need to learn 10 retail principles from the best retailers that'll help as you seek to retell the greatest story every told.

1. Directional Signs

Studies have shown that we get 30 seconds to make either a favorable or unfavorable first impression. For most retail stores, customers first see the signs on the outside of the store. Inside the building, signs are visibly located to give customers directions to where they currently are and to other areas they may want to go. Department signs clearly mark each area. Many stores also display pictures or the names of their management team so customers know who to go to with questions or concerns.

Directional signs are also very important in helping your first-time families feel at ease in your children's ministry area. What is it that your visitors see first?

  • Post directional signs on the outside of your church to clearly label your children's ministry area.
  • Post easy-to-read location signs at each of your entrances and key traffic locations.
  • Provide first-time visitors maps to your classrooms.
  • Clearly identify each room with an easy-to-read sign.
  • Post pictures of children's ministry staff and lead volunteers in a central area, perhaps near your information booth.

2. Helpful Staff

Retailers spend money to get you into their stores, but they know that all the money they spend on great merchandise, great advertisements, and great signs will be a waste if you have a bad experience with a sales associate. The best retailers also spend a considerable amount of time and money on training, mentoring, and encouraging sales or customer service staff.

Just as a store's selling staff represents the store and their product, your ministry needs a great staff representing it. So who greets your first-time visitors? How well do these people represent your ministry?

  • Your ministry team-staff and volunteers-should have clearly identified name tags. Consider having your greeters wear brightly colored buttons with the words "Ask Me About Children's Ministry." This automatically helps visitors know where to go for help.
  • Station greeters at each church entrance to assist visitors as they enter.
  • Create an information or visitor check-in booth where visitors can get information and answers to their questions. Position individual greeters outside each classroom door to ensure that these greeters are clearly visible and easy to find.
  • Hold an annual or biannual workshop geared only toward how to assist and greet the first-time visitor.
  • Just as retailers hold weekly associate meetings to update staff on new procedures or product training, communicate regularly with your greeters about ministry changes, new information, or churchwide news. The more informed your greeters are, the better they can answer questions.

3. Product Information And Packaging

Retailers help their customers with product tags that give customers valuable information such as the product content and care instructions. Retailers also carefully display and package products to not only be eye appealing, but to also aid customers in easily finding what they're looking for. You can help first-time visitors by giving them "product information" about your ministry.

  • Use attractive, concise brochures to give overview information about your ministry.
  • Provide newsletters to give current information about ministry programs.
  • Use wall, tabletop, or full-unit racks to display your printed information. Keep racks fully stocked with current brochures that are clearly marked and easily identifiable. Display and label information according to ministry category. Keep all information pertaining to the nursery, preschool, or elementary ages together. Keep camp or alternative-program information together. You may also want to keep a supply of brochures on adult and youth ministry information at your visitor booth.

4. Personal Shoppers

The finest retailers have personal shoppers who give special customers one-on-one attention. These customer- service specialists are able to assist customers with all of their shopping needs and aren't limited to one particular area. These personal shoppers are highly trained and have a great overall knowledge of the store's entire products. You can capture this concept and create a "personal shopper" type of ministry at your church.

  • Identify volunteers who'll greet first-time families at your information booth, assist them with check in, and take each family member to the appropriate class location.
  • Recruit several volunteers for this one-on-one ministry so that as one volunteer is assisting visitors to their classrooms, others are available to help at your information booth. These volunteers will constantly rotate from information booth to classrooms and back to the information booth.
  • Inform these volunteers of all the church ministries so they can answer and assist visitors with their questions and needs.

5. Check-out Line

Remember the last time you were in a store and had to wait and wait to be checked out? Remember the frustration? To ensure an efficient check out, retailers make sure they have adequate staff and supplies. They may also treat waiting customers to an awesome food product sample or ask them to fill out an information or survey card while they wait.

  • Recruit people who'll answer questions and provide information about your church and ministry as people wait in line.
  • While they wait, give visitors a clipboard and pen for them to use as they fill out a family information card.
  • Place your ministry information in a visible spot so visitors can read it while they wait.
  • Play background music.
  • Place your information booth near an activity area for children, or have quick activities for children to do while their parents wait in line.
  • Ensure that you have ample supplies such as registration forms, pens or pencils, temporary name tags, and information brochures available so no one has to wait as you hunt for these items.

6. Maintained Areas

Retail store managers know the importance of presenting a well-maintained area to their customers. Weekly they look for areas that need to be cleaned, repaired, or updated. It's also important that well-maintained areas are presented to our church family in children's ministry.

  • Do a weekly walk-through of your ministry area. List all areas that need to be repaired or updated.
  • Look for safety hazards, broken equipment, burned-out lights, or damaged walls and ceiling tiles. Remove any unsafe supplies or equipment being stored in classrooms, hallways, or entryways. Verify that rooms are thoroughly cleaned, trash removed, and setup has been done properly.
  • Check your climate control to ensure that the temperature is comfortable in all rooms.

7. Attractive Displays

Displays entice customers to want to buy. Displays also give a visual reference about what the product actually looks like and what it does. What do your displays say about your ministry with children?

  • Create interest in your area with wall murals and exciting child friendly entries and hallways.
  • Hang bulletin boards or display boards in highly visible areas to highlight your ministry and specific programs.
  • Keep your displays current and seasonally appropriate. Change them frequently.

8. Follow Up

Retailers know the importance of sending customers thank you notes or follow-up letters after large purchases. Personal phone calls are also a great way of following up with customers to let them know that their patronage is appreciated and they're being thought of even after the sale is completed. This is also a great tool for you to receive feedback.

  • Send welcome letters or personally call all first-time visitors during the week following their visit.
  • Ask visitors to come back to your information booth on their second visit. This gives you a great opportunity to follow up on their first visit and to answer any questions they may have.

9. Scouting

Retailers know they can get some of their best information by checking to see what the competition is doing. Evaluating the product-offering of a competitor can help determine new product mixes, and retailers can also discover new ideas for merchandise displays. Although you're not in competition with other churches, you can get new ideas from them.

  • Visit other churches. Get on their ministry newsletter mailing lists.
  • Join a ministry networking group in your community. If you don't have one, consider starting one.
  • Read the events calendar in the religion section of your local newspaper.
  • Call your curriculum salesperson or other supplier to discover what churches in other areas are doing.
  • Stay current by subscribing to great ministry magazines such as this one.

10. Product Evaluation

Retailers spend time evaluating the sales of products before determining new product mixes or reordering existing merchandise. They get evaluation information by checking sales reports, talking with sales staff, and interviewing customers. Merchandise with good sales will be reordered and restocked. Merchandise with slow sales may be relocated or displayed differently in the department to give it better exposure. Merchandise with no or low sales is usually eliminated from the merchandise assortment or replaced with a new product.

Take a look at your ministry. What ministry offerings need to be continued? What needs to be given more visibility? What needs to be eliminated completely? What needs to be replaced? How do you get information to evaluate your ministry?

  • Brainstorm with team leaders.
  • Check past history. Did children enroll in a program?
  • Follow up with first-time visitors for initial reactions.
  • Create a feedback group with children or parents.

Excellent customer service and product assortment is critical to any retailer to establish repeat, committed customers. The next time you're shopping, look at your surroundings in a new and exciting way. Look at what you can learn from the retailing industry as you seek to serve God by retelling the good news!


Debi Nixon is the director of children's ministries at The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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