A little store with a big purpose

The Paraclete carves out a niche to serve East Tennessee and beyond thanks to online sales      

By Bill Brewer

It’s not your grandmother’s Paraclete anymore.

Well, it really is, and your mother’s, too, but recent changes at the longtime Catholic retailer mean it’s also your children’s, your parish’s, your priest’s and deacon’s, and even the Baptist church down the street’s Paraclete.

How The Paraclete is growing. But you would never know to look at the retail store from the outside.

Changes that have taken place on the inside reveal an expanding customer base, with sales now from coast to coast and suppliers from as far away as Italy.

The Paraclete is no longer just the West Knoxville Catholic gifts and books store. While many Christian book and gift sellers are struggling to stay open amid stiff online sales competition, The Paraclete is bucking the trend, and doing so in the name of seminarian education.

A change in strategy accompanied a change in management in 2019, and since then Deacon Walt Otey and Sara Lauer have teamed to bring East Tennessee’s only Catholic merchandise retailer into the new age of retailing.

A sure sign that the changes started in 2019 are working is The Paraclete is now turning a profit. And that is good news for the education of Diocese of Knoxville seminarians.

“We’re actually starting to make a profit, even through COVID. We did it while also reducing prices. Sara has been a great asset. She does a really good job running the store. She’s very good with the customers,” Deacon Otey said.

Restructuring prices is just one of many changes the store has undertaken since the fall of 2019. Without adding to its physical size, Deacon Otey and Mrs. Lauer have opened up the store interior to allow more space for customers. But they haven’t sacrificed merchandise to do that.

Sara Lauer and Deborah Noe assist permanent diaconate candidate Pat Nakagawa of All Saints Church with a purchase.

“Probably one of the biggest changes is the change in the layout and the remodeling of the store. We were able to open it up so it is a more inviting area, less packed in. We still carry the same amount of books that were carried before. We were able to remove a lot of the bookcases from the middle of the sales floor to open that up and be able to put new fixtures in there. We’ve gone to white fixturing to give it a nice, clean, bright appearance,” Deacon Otey explained. “We just changed how it was laid out.”

Mrs. Lauer has heard feedback from customers reacting to the interior redesign.

“We even had somebody with a baby stroller come in and say she was not able to come in before because she couldn’t maneuver the baby stroller around. And now she is so happy. And then we have people in wheelchairs. We’ve been able to open up the floor more so it is easier to maneuver around,” she said. “Deacon took the bookcases, sliced them in half, and we pushed them up against the wall. So instead of having them in the middle of the floor, we just pushed them up against the wall and now we have fixtures you can go around.”

Deacon Otey and Mrs. Lauer purchased fixtures for the redesign at steeply reduced prices from Knoxville Center Mall after it closed and before it was razed.

She pointed out that The Paraclete has regular customers from Ohio and North Carolina to buy specific items, like religious-themed socks and holy cards. She said the most popular items The Paraclete sells are rosaries, medals, necklaces, and statues.

The Paraclete is the only retailer of Catholic merchandise in East Tennessee. The nearest stores are in Nashville, Louisville, Charlotte, and Atlanta.

Other differences involve the store’s product mix.

“The other biggest change besides the physical layout is updating the merchandise. We’ve gone into some home-, kitchen-type gifts; serving ware. Things like water bottles, kitchen towels. One of the good things that came out of COVID was we have a local parishioner who makes masks for us. She makes them with religious symbols on them. We started that relationship selling masks, but now she’s doing things like embroidered kitchen towels and T-shirts. It gives us an opportunity to reach out to the community and use local artists,” Deacon Otey said.

A local artist who makes ornaments with images of Sacred Heart Cathedral on them is now producing them for The Paraclete. Mrs. Lauer said the store is now selling items made by other East Tennessee artisans.

The store also has expanded its product lines and hours. Known by its customers for its selection of cards, books, candles, statues, rosaries, first Holy Communion and confirmation gifts, and medals, The Paraclete is working to be the sole supplier of any Catholic merchandise needed by clergy and parishes in the diocese. It now is open from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday.

“We’ve added some product lines. One of the big ones that took us a while to get is a company called Barbiconi in Rome. We are the only reseller of clergy shirts from Barbiconi. They are a favorite of a lot of the priests in the area. And any time someone went to Rome, they would tell them to buy some shirts and bring them back. After working with Barbiconi for a good amount of time, we were able to get them to authorize us as a reseller. We are the only reseller of their shirts outside of their store in Rome,” Deacon Otey said.

Adding the Barbiconi line of religious apparel is quite a coup for The Paraclete. As word has spread that the East Tennessee store is the only retailer of this brand outside of Italy, sales have been escalating.

“Word has definitely spread because I have priests, monsignors, seminarians from California to New Jersey ordering them. They will say ‘I just typed in Barbiconi on my computer and your website popped up. I just order them or go to Rome to get them, and it’s fantastic that you guys are carrying it,’” Mrs. Lauer noted.

And the reason sales are rising is attributed to the biggest change The Paraclete has undertaken: online sales. Father David Boettner, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Bishop Richard F. Stika, and Deacon Otey agreed The Paraclete had to begin offering merchandise through a dedicated website.

When Bishop Stika and Father Boettner talked to Deacon Otey about reorganizing The Paraclete, online sales, which had not been available through The Paraclete, was a major consideration.

“One of the biggest changes we’ve made is activating our online store. So we are now able to do Internet sales. We are shipping Barbiconi shirts all over the United States because we are the only place they can be bought except for Rome,” said Deacon Otey, who added that online sales, which have been taking place less than two years, still are low as a percentage of overall sales but are consistently growing. “And it’s absolutely proving to be successful.”

Deacon Otey and Mrs. Lauer were able to contract with a Sacred Heart Cathedral parishioner, Chad Hernandez, who develops websites. And The Paraclete’s “new store” was created, allowing online shoppers access to all The Paraclete’s merchandise from anywhere. Mrs. Lauer said he created the platform and the plug-ins and all components to link credit-card payments and shipping.

“We probably get two to three online sales orders a day. All of those sales are additional sales. Those are sales we would never have been able to capture before because they are from outside of our physical area and those people couldn’t come into our store, but they are now able to purchase from us online,” Deacon Otey noted.

“The website is paracletecatholic.org. Click on shop and you just pick clergy shirts, candles …. Some of the churches in the diocese, instead of calling us, will just order their candles or Communion hosts off the website. I get an e-mail immediately as soon as the order comes through. I pack it up, I weigh it, I ship it out, and they get a confirmation,” Mrs. Lauer pointed out.

The new website has been a tremendous asset during the COVID pandemic as consumers everywhere opted to stay at home and shop online. Mrs. Lauer pointed out that in-parish gift shops around the diocese, which had to alter their hours because of COVID, continue to be supplied by The Paraclete.

Mrs. Lauer, who manages the store, said she and The Paraclete staff have been reaching out to parishes, working to build relationships so The Paraclete can be their main supplier of Catholic merchandise. And a number of priests order their church supplies and clergy apparel such as shirts and vestments from The Paraclete.

Deacon Otey, who serves as an adviser to The Paraclete, and Mrs. Lauer would like all of them to use the store.

“I’ve tried to be as kind and accommodating as I can. I reach out to people all the time and say, ‘how can we help you?’ If I don’t hear from a parish, I’ll e-mail or call them. Typically, they say, ‘thank you so much for calling. We’ve been meaning to call you.’ It just proves what we say, that it’s a little store but it’s such a big purpose here. It’s more than just a store. It’s a ministry. We’re starting to see more churches reach out to us. It’s fantastic,” Mrs. Lauer said.

Deacon Otey believes many, if not most, of the diocese’s 50 parishes are now using The Paraclete as a resource.

He said the growth of the Catholic Church in East Tennessee has helped The Paraclete grow, but he acknowledged the challenges parishioners in Chattanooga, the Tri-Cities, and outlying areas have in driving to The Paraclete store in West Knoxville.

The Paraclete’s website is helping solve that dilemma.

“What I’m noticing more and more is that we’re getting increased local sales, either customers wanting their merchandise shipped or placing the order online, paying for it online, and coming into the store to pick it up. That’s an option we give,” Deacon Otey said, adding that getting the word out about The Paraclete’s services and inventory has been important. He also believes The Paraclete staff is making inroads with pastors and priests about their churches becoming Paraclete customers.

“Our goal is to serve them, to make sure they’re getting what they need when they need it at the best possible price. We know parishes aren’t rolling in money,” he noted.

He and Mrs. Lauer are confident that diocesan parishes, and any Catholic parish anywhere for that matter, can get what they need from The Paraclete at competitive prices. They cited Barbiconi clergy attire as an example.

In addition to Barbiconi, Deacon Otey has been working with a Christian cooperative in the Holy Land to provide their products to U.S. customers of faith through The Paraclete, yet another example of the store expanding its product line.

Catholic retailers, like their faith-based and secular counterparts, are looking to fill niches as a way to appeal to consumers, who increasingly are using large online retailers like Amazon.

The Paraclete has apparel prominently displayed in its store and online, including the popular Barbiconi line of clergy wear. The store’s most popular items are rosaries, necklaces, prayer cards, books, and statues.

“The Amazons of the world have really made it hard on small businesses, so we have to find that niche we can serve that they can’t,” Deacon Otey said, adding that while Amazon does offer Catholic-based merchandise, especially books, there are niches that Amazon can’t offer.

“You can’t go to Amazon and buy Barbiconi,” he said, noting that consumers can even buy Communion hosts from Amazon, “but not cheaper than what you can from The Paraclete.”

And there’s another factor to consider with some online sales. Deacon Otey pointed out that candles are prevalent in every church, but there aren’t a lot of stores that offer them. Online retailers are an option, but because candles in bulk are heavy, shipping them can be expensive. He said churches are thrilled when they have a resource like The Paraclete, where they can buy candles without having them shipped.

Mrs. Lauer described how Paraclete customers tell her they would rather purchase from The Paraclete than Amazon because of the Paraclete’s customer service and its mission.

“We like to tell our customers that you are contributing to an important ministry: the education of seminarians,” she said.

“That’s the message that really needs to be the strongest message — to fund seminarian education. No one is getting rich working here. The Paraclete’s sole purpose is to fund seminarian education. But we want to do it and still be a good deal to the customers. We want it to be a win-win,” Deacon Otey added.

Deacon Otey is confident that the emerging giant online retailers like Amazon and eBay won’t supplant small stores like The Paraclete in offering Catholic merchandise to customers because the giants don’t offer personalized service.

“We serve a niche that they cannot, not only in just products but in relationships. If someone needs a medal for a particular friend who is suffering for some reason and they want to know what medal they should buy, they’re not going to get that on Amazon. They want that personal touch that people like when they are buying this type of merchandise. Do we lose sales to Amazon? Absolutely. But by trying to fill the niche that we see as ours, as best we can we’ll minimize that,” he said.

And Mrs. Lauer and he agree that regardless of the success and growth of online sales, The Paraclete will always have a brick-and-mortar presence in the diocese, most likely where it is now at 417 Erin Drive on the campus of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, because customers still like to browse through merchandise.

Mrs. Lauer and Deacon Otey emphasize that they can fill any order a parish, or priest, or layperson might have, whether vestments, clerics, candles, paschal candles, Communion hosts, rosaries, medals, holy cards, statues, books, or child-friendly merchandise. And they insist on Paraclete merchandise being reasonably priced.

As The Paraclete has evolved, so has its customer base. The Catholic store now counts among its customers Russian and Greek Orthodox churches as well as Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, and Baptist churches.

“We’re adding accounts,” Mrs. Lauer said, noting that she is seeing customers from other faiths who say, “we use that, too, in our services.”

She emphasized that the Paraclete gets many customers who are not Catholic but need to purchase an item for someone who is Catholic, such as a first Holy Communion gift.

“That’s where we come in. We can really give that customer service and just help them. A lot of customers will say, ‘I’m not Catholic, but my friend is, or my husband’s mother is.’ They come in and they have no idea what to get and they need guidance. You can’t do that on Amazon,” she said. “We’re trying to build those relationships as well. I had a gift shop in Florida reach out to us, asking if she could start a relationship with us and if she could just send me a list of a few items she needs and if I could just ship them to her. I said absolutely.”

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