Founded in 1987 as a Christian-themed T-shirt company, Kerusso has since emerged as the leader in apparel, gifts, and toys focused on spreading the word of Jesus. In the past few years, the company has seen average annual growth of 21%. Vic Kennett, president and CEO, believes a part of this growth comes from the company’s inherent need to continually push the bar higher to bring consumers what they want.
“We never rest,” said Kennett. “We always look for new channels to cross into, and we’ve branched out from being strictly a mom and pop Christian bookstore staple to being more Web-based and crossing international boundaries.”
Kerusso products can be found in more than 60 countries today. In the US, the company also distributes its products to big-box retailers and mainstream locations such as Hallmark. All told, the company has more than 5,000 accounts worldwide, with a 50/50 ratio of faith-based versus non-faith-based business partners.
Its product assortment has also expanded since its founding 22 years ago, in part due to the continuous improvement mindset that runs rampant through the company. Roughly 30% of Kerusso’s product assortment is non-apparel, including jewelry, wearable accessories, and Christian-themed kids toys.
“We’ve got God’s Girls dolls that sport a Kerusso T-shirt, and we’re launching a new line of toy puppies,” said Kennett. “We also do well with gadgetry gifts for men, such as our Build on the Rock tape measure.”
More than 99% of the creative and design ideas for Kerusso products are developed inhouse, but the company also does some licensing and gets ideas submitted through its Web site. Although it can be extremely time consuming, Kennett said that one great suggestion out of 200 possibilities makes sorting through the possibilities worth it.
“We’re looked at in the Christian publishing and product industry as the go-to licensee for content and apparel,” he said. Kerusso has also done a number of projects with Max Lucado, one of the best-selling Christian authors of our time. The company is currently the primary distributor for Lucado’s most recent book, Fearless: Imagine Your Life Without Fear.
Cross-marketing comes into play when dealing with the publishing industry. When Kerusso distributed The Prayer of Jabez, which was a New York Times bestseller, it also released a T-shirt related to the book. Kennett said licensing is a great way for Kerusso to partner with other companies who share a common mission.
“Our mission is: Proclaiming the good news to the world through products about Jesus,” he said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing and what we will continue to do.”
Lending a hand
The majority of Kerusso’s accounts are not apparel experts. They often carry a wide variety of merchandise and try to exceed expectations in all categories at once. To relieve some of this burden, Kerusso offers its retail partners display and sales philosophy guidelines.
On the display side, there is the Lighthouse Apparel Center, which faces out 20 T-shirt designs. “We found that stores put their shirts on racks or rounders, but sleeves don’t sell graphic T-shirts,” said Kennett. “If you can face your designs out and let your customers look at 20 designs easily, the products will speak to them.”
The Lighthouse Apparel Centers are also space savers. Within the four square feet of space each center takes up, retailers can merchandise 20 designs. Depending on the level of inventory at a particular retailer, this could add up to 240 shirts or $3,600 worth of retail in four square feet.
Kennett said stores using the Lighthouse Apparel Centers for at least six months saw an average increase of 330% in sales of T-shirts. “It’s easy to inventory for those who don’t have a POS system, and some of these smaller stores don’t,” he said. “It’s easy to take stock, it keeps customers’ interest, and we have seen T-shirt sales increase.”
As for sales philosophy guidelines, Kerusso offers the following six rules: make sure shirts are facing outward; one size doesn’t fit all; keep it fresh, not boring and predictable; variety is the spice of life; location-location—don’t hide it under a bushel; and put it on (your employees).
“We position ourselves as the apparel experts and let our business partners know how we do it,” said Kennett. “Any training we can offer the stores and front liners will improve how we sell the product.”
Kerusso recently invested in an ERP system to improve its behind-the-scenes operations and keep a better handle on what its customers want. The company improved its data capture capabilities and is developing a CRM system.
“We’ve got e-mails to alert our customers when their shipment leaves our warehouse and when to expect it,” said Kennett. “Years of double-digit growth have brought many new challenges that only a broad ERP system can handle; we have that now and are positioned to thrive with even more growth.”
Kerusso invests in more than its own business, however. In 2005, the company chose Compassion International, the world’s largest Christian child development and sponsorship organization, as its primary charity and developed the Live for Him Red Wristband Project to support it. So far, Kerusso has raised in excess of $300,000 for children of Compassion.
This year, the Live for Him campaign relaunched, and Kerusso added T-shirts, a cap, and a stainless steel ring that says Live for Him. The company’s goal is to reach the original goal of $500,000 to be donated to Compassion within the next year.
“We’ve been blessed, and I don’t believe we’re blessed just to hang onto it for ourselves,” said Kennett. “That’s my heart and the heart of most people here at the company. We want to give back, and this is a way to do it.”