He had no idea it was coming.
The owner of Missionary Depot did not hear the actual announcement for the missionary age change in 2012. He was working at the store and first heard about it when he got home later that night.
“My initial reaction was surprise,” said David Chappuis. “I was happy about it.”
He said he did not immediately think about how it would be good for business but instead realized that the increase of missionaries going out would be significant.
Few people, especially managers at Utah missionary clothing stores, knew just how significant that growth of missionaries would be. Business and sales for missionary clothing dramatically increased by the time 2013 rolled around, and some stores expect another increase of sales in the coming year.
Changes and growing profits
The number of missionaries skyrocketed after the missionary age change announcement. Numbers rose from 58,500 to more than 82,000 by the end of 2013, according to the Mormon Newsroom website. Missionary applications went from an average of 700 to 4,000 a week for a time, according to a 2013 Mormon Newsroom news release.
This sudden rise in missionaries brought a sharp increase of people into missionary clothing stores throughout Utah, eager to find suits, dresses and accessories for their missions.
“Last year, our sales were up about 20 percent,” said Jason Winn, a manager at Mr. Mac in Orem. “It was a record year for every store in our chain.”
The spike of sister missionaries, in particular, led many of these stores to make changes to their business models. The number of sister missionaries rose from 8,055 to 21,695 from the time of the age change announcement to 2013, according to a recent New York Times article.
Winn also said they probably tripled their inventory for sister missionary clothes. “Last spring was when we really started noticing a lot more sister missionary shopping.”
Chappuis and his store responded to the growth of sister missionaries as well.
“We had thought about carrying some sister missionary items, but we had never really done a whole lot with it,” Chappuis said.
He said the missionary age change is what motivated his store to bring in more clothing and shoes for sister missionaries. He said that choice has brought in a lot more female customers since then.
Another change that some missionary clothing stores experienced was a rise in online shopping.
“When we first opened our stores, we saw Internet sales wane a little bit because people still really wanted to be in the stores,” said Jenni Theobald, owner of Sister Missionary Mall. “But now we are seeing a rebirth of our Internet sales.”
Theobald said they sometimes sell as much online as they do in their physical store locations.
Although the missionary age change brought many benefits to missionary clothing stores, the sudden influx of missionaries also brought with it certain obstacles. Stores were caught off guard with a situation that gave them no time to prepare.
“The increase last year threw us for a loop,” Jenni Thoebald, Sister Missionary Mall owner, said.
She said they had been able to predict trends in the past, but the missionary age change left them wondering what the new normal would be for a time. She said they enjoyed the increase of business but wondered when things would eventually stabilize.
“A challenge was trying to maintain the inventory,” said Rod Staples, manager at the CTR Clothing store in Orem. “Some things we did run out of, but we were able to get back on top of it because we have 11 to 12 stores we can draw from.”
Staples said the store was going through 100–200 shirts a week for a while.
Theobald said a lot of startup companies were created after the age change and began copying what her company was doing. Many people want a piece of the pie now.
“I didn’t realize how many people would be so excited to jump on the wagon,” Theobald said.
Growth continues into 2014
Some stores started to see things return to normal after many months of financial success in 2013. “Sales have already leveled out ever since the first of the year,” Staples said. But stores are anticipating a rise in sales after students graduate from high school in May and can leave for missions.
Staples said his store saw the signs of stabilization in September of last year because the newest 18-year-old missionaries were just starting their senior year of high school.
“We are just waiting for that next batch of graduated kids,” Chappuis said.
Chappuis said there are a lot of students in high school who have received their calls but have not yet bought missionary clothing because they want to wait until they get out of school before they start shopping. He said he expects a lot of these students to start buying clothes between the end of this month and June.
The missionary age change will do more than impact Utah missionary clothing stores financially. It will continue to influence personal views and business decisions in the future, according to several Utah missionary clothing store managers. Some believe missionary numbers will continue to be affected.
“There used to be this kind of stigma that if you served a mission, you were old and you were unwanted,” according to Theobald. That is not the case today, he said in reference to how some personal views will change about sister missionaries.
“I don’t think stores that really want to capture the full missionary market can ignore sisters anymore,” Chappuis said. “Traditionally, that’s kind of been the way it is.”
Theobald said he also believes the number of elders and sisters will balance out over time.