Retail

Can the Godless Market Evolve Beyond Bumper Stickers?


A promotional photo from the online store of American Atheists (atheists.org).
who will be holding their 50th anniversary convention in Austin next March.
Shirt has the slogan "You KNOW it's a myth" on the back.

Photograph Courtesy American Atheists

A promotional photo from the online store of American Atheists (atheists.org). who will be holding their 50th anniversary convention in Austin next March. Shirt has the slogan "You KNOW it's a myth" on the back.

Religiosity has declined in the U.S. by 13 percent since 2005, according to a new poll (PDF). The Millennial generation, born between 1981 and 2000, is the least religious yet, with one in four identifying themselves as religiously unaffiliated, atheist, or agnostic in a 2010 PewResearchCenter survey. That works out to about 15 million Americans who describe themselves as “convinced atheists,” more than many mainline Protestant denominations, Jews, or Muslims.

Is there a market for merchandise for the godless? Retailers who cater to evangelical Christians with items including books, apparel, gifts, and Bibles represent $4.63 billion annually, according to the Association for Christian Retail. Those who sell to nonbelievers tend to be small business owners who are true nonbelievers. While bumper stickers and T-shirts are obvious favorites, books about evolution, educational games for children, and science-themed jewelry also hold appeal, says Derek Colanduno, an Atlanta computer programmer who hosts a podcast for skeptics.

The relative newness of the modern freethought movement, a collection of secular-minded organizations and nontheistic individuals, is partly responsible for the immaturity of the business market. It was Internet message boards, blogs, and podcasts that brought together younger skeptical and science-minded individuals to establish communities and attend regular conferences, says Colanduno. “Before the Internet, it was the old guard, the old white-haired men meeting in peoples’ basements,” he says.

The largest such conference is the Amaz!ng Meeting, hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation, a nonprofit founded by magician and debunker James Randi in 1996. It hosts conferences around the world; its annual Las Vegas gathering drew about 1,200 in early July, along with 20 nonprofit and for-profit vendors, says the group’s president, D.J. Grothe. “There are a growing number of businesses that cater to skeptics and the larger community of reason,” he says, noting that attendees make up a well-educated, well-off niche market. “This is a subculture that really is hungry and has money to play with.”

Michael McCarron, president of San Diego’s Etching Expressions, is tapping into that subculture, selling custom-etched wine, water, and liquor bottles at several conferences annually. Many attendees are surprised to see him, McCarron writes in an e-mail; he has nine full-time employees and revenue just over $1 million. “I am certainly not the average exhibitor. The vast majority of exhibitors are selling products specifically geared to this group—T-shirts, buttons, books,” he writes. “My job is to help everyone—whatever their beliefs—celebrate the important milestones in their lives. Atheists, freethinkers, agnostics have just as much to rejoice about as everybody else.”

The nonreligious have long faced perceptions that they are immoral or angry, which likely keep more small businesses and larger brands from selling at or sponsoring conventions, Grothe says. Still, a Gallup poll from this summer showed that 54 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist for president, up from 40 percent in 1978.

Many Americans “treat nonbelievers kind of like lepers,” says Gary Betchan, owner of EvolveFish, a $500,000, six-employee company that sells such merchandise as car emblems, bumper stickers, and jewelry that promote science and directly challenge religious belief. When he started the Colorado Springs business in 1992, he says, he was often turned down by suppliers and distributors who took offense to his product line. “We had a hard time buying advertising in publications—the layout gets lost, the contract gets misplaced,” Betchan says. “We’ve learned to go to vendors with samples first and tell them about the problems we’ve had in the past. Either they say, ‘No problem,’ or they say, ‘I bet old Hilda would have a problem with that,’ and they turn us down.”

Despite organized opposition, many vendors and advocates see the rapid demographic shift encouraging more tolerance and point to growing business and social acceptance of the gay and lesbian community as a model. The Reason Rally, which drew 20,000 nontheists to a daylong rally in Washington, D.C., last spring, was a turning point, Betchan says. And an Internet-run Out Campaign, which encourages “closet atheists” to declare themselves openly, has emboldened many. “Around the world, more elected officials and business people are coming out as skeptics or atheists,” Grothe says, citing Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. “The negative perception is entrenched, but it’s changing.”

Karen_klein
Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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