In the face of stormy changes in consumer habits and cultural values, Christian product suppliers and retailers were offered an anchor and a compass this week at UNITE 2016, CBA’s International Christian Retail Show.

While celebrating the faith they hold in common, they also heard of positive trends and practical steps they can take to grow business in their time at the June 26-29 event at the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. A total 2,114 suppliers, distributors, retailers, and related professionals attended the recast convention, right-sized this year to meet their needs as trade shows have also changed in recent years.

With a reduced emphasis on store buying, the event continues to provide an unparalleled opportunity for all those involved in producing and distributing Christian resources to come together in their shared mission—hence the theme, UNITE 2016. Helping facilitate that connection, business at the 200-plus exhibitor booths was suspended over lunchtime on Monday and Tuesday to allow attendees to gather for keynote presentations and discussions.

Through the event key leaders discussed thorny issues like multi-channel management in open panel discussions, senior executives met in private meetings, and attendees took part in breakout sessions spotlighting major new products, providing retail training, and offering consumer insights.


Pivotal role

Illustrative of how CBA’s convention is acknowledged to play a pivotal role in the industry was the presentation of an exclusive, extended preview for the Christian retail channel of MGM’s remake of the classic movie, Ben-Hur, releasing in theaters in August. Additionally, the Advanced Writers and Speakers Association and Christian Retailing magazine announced their annual awards at UNITE 2016.

CBA’s convention is “a very big part of our strategy,” said Tom Knight, senior VP of sales at HarperCollins Christian Publishing. “It’s very important for us to be here. It’s a good business-to-business show, so we’re able to talk not just with retailers.”

This year’s move to a smaller convention city and venue—offering easier access to many attendees—was welcomed by Dave Schroeder, VP of marketing at B&H Publishing Group, “I like it here a lot,” he said. “It was a really wise move. I have been just as busy as any other year. This is where everyone else is; where else can I get together with all of our core partners in one place?”


Industry trends

UNITE 2016 followed hard on the heels of the release of CBA’s annual State of the Industry report, which revealed a sales dip of just under 1 percent for Christian independent retailers last year and a net loss of 24 stores.

But there were positive indicators in Cincinnati. Christian publishing has been growing since 2010, with Christian retail accounting for around 17 percent of category sales, Nielsen BookScan’s Director of New business Development, Kristen McLean, reported at one general session. She identified “professing Christians”—those who are interested in faith but may attend church only rarely, comprising almost a third of consumers—as potentially “the future of this business,” prompting the question, “what does the Christian retail environment of the future look like?”


CBA initiatives

One major new initiative announced at UNITE 2016 was a partnership between CBA and Content Road Media Corporation to bring a stream of high-margin releases to Christian retail, starting with the docudrama, The Samaritan. It tells how attorney Eddie Roush helped reunite a Romanian defector and his family by securing their freedom from the Communist dictator state, in the 1980s.

The DVD is due to come to Christian stores in the fall, with wider distribution to follow some months later. Other releases, including music and books, will follow along similar lines. “I believe it’s a spiritual calling,” Content Road partner and Samaritan director Kevin McAfee said of the strategic alliance. “There are some things that don’t make sense to the world, but those of us who follow God, we follow something higher and if we can prove this model, think what this could do.”

Another CBA move detailed at UNITE 2016 is a partnership with the American Booksellers Association to provide members with resources to help them lobby for changes that will level their playing field against online giant Amazon. Currently almost half of states do not collect sales tax on Amazon purchases, which together with property taxes lost in the switch of shopping from physical stores to online costs local communities almost $1 billion in 2014, it was reported at one session.


Awards and thanks

UNITE 2016 also provided an opportunity to honor industry leaders. Among them were the CBA Industry Champion Award presentation to Bob Fryling, recently retired publisher of InterVarsity Press, and the Jim Carlson Spirit of Excellence Award given to Carl and Becky Ashizawa, owners of Logos Bookstore of Hawaii, in Honolulu, Hawaii.

For regular convention attendee Janet Wingard, manager of Sherwood Oaks Christian Store at Sherwood Oaks Christian Church in Bloomington, Indiana, UNITE 2016 “has been one of the best years, for me.” She said: “I do a lot of my orders here and I feel like I have connected with friends. It has been really inspiring from that direction.”

First-timer Elijah McDaniel, a pastor from New Ellenton, South Carolina, came to UNITE 2016 for help as he prepares to open Kingdom Christian Bookstore, to fulfill a dream he has had since 1999. “Awesome,” he said, after sitting in on the six-part Retail Academy training and visiting exhibitors. “I have learned a lot, met a lot of great people. I am very encouraged.”

CBA President Curtis Riskey welcomed how attendees responded enthusiastically to the theme of UNITE 2016. “No single group is large enough on its own to do what needs to be done to move this channel into the future that is possible,” he said. “What might happen if the Christian products industry could become a model to the rest of the world, that we are seen to do things differently?”

CBA UNITE 2016 left something behind in Cincinnati: attendees donated more than $3,000 and suppliers gave six pallets of educational materials, Bibles, and other resources to the convention’s local Ministry in Action partner, BLOC, Believing in Living One Christ.

CBA’s convention will return to Cincinnati next year, June 28-30, when there will be further innovations to the format to continue to meet changing industry needs.