CBA’s annual gathering cultivates new opportunities, relationship building and global growth.

UNITE continues to be the place for igniting new partnerships and cultivating relationships that move the industry forward.

For the second consecutive year, the Christian products industry convened in Cincinnati, Ohio, for CBA’s annual convention, co-sponsored this year by HarperCollins Christian Publishing and Ingram/ Spring Arbor. Under the banner of “Envision the Legacy,” UNITE 2017 attracted retailers and suppliers from around the globe for four days of training, meetings, workshops, and encouragement, June 27-30, at Duke Energy Convention Center. With a net loss of 28 independent stores, in addition to some 270 Family Christian Stores that have shuttered within the last year, the industry has seen its share of hard times. Add to that the difficulties presented by evolving technology, changing consumer behavior, and that dreaded six-letter word (Amazon), and Christian retail is facing some of its biggest challenges since CBA’s annual convention began in 1950. While this year’s conference certainly didn’t sweep today’s very real hurdles under the rug, UNITE 2017 chose to shine a light on the recent successes of Christian retail, all while entertaining new ways of moving forward with innovation, creativity, and a servant’s heart.

“With change comes pain. We’ve experienced a lot of pain; we’ve had to adapt,” says CBA President Curtis Riskey. “I believe that as we unite, God smiles. I believe that we can be a testimony to the rest of the world.”

UNITE’s workshops, evening entertainment, and training sessions focused on encouraging Christian retailers to remember their foundational mission amidst change. “Small business is the backbone of America,” author Terence Chatmon shared during his keynote address at UNITE’s Legacy Banquet. “We have a purpose to live out. You might have to redefine yourself, but be the servant leader He’s called you to be.”

The Friedman Group’s Wendi Swanson, who introduced CBA’s new Retail Academy Online training program, challenged attendees to set a higher standard of excellence for their employees and their places of business. “Our stores should be the cleanest. Our people should be the sharpest,” she said. “Our stores should be the best because of who we are.”

CHANGE CREATES OPPORTUNITY

In addition to keeping the heartbeat of Christian retail front and center, many of UNITE’s educational sessions emphasized how change actually opens doors for new opportunity. “Changing times require even the most fundamental of things,” Carpentree’s Sherry Morris offered during her workshop, Gift & Specialty Buying: Making Gift Campaigns Work. “Competition can actually be an opportunity to look for a niche that you can fill.”

Morris encouraged store owners to think outside their own individual tastes and preferences to accommodate the largest, most diverse customer base possible. “Remember that you’re not the one you’re selling to,” she advised. “Only buy 50 percent that you would put in your own home.” She added that 10 to15 percent of all inventory should answer the question, “Who on earth would buy that?”

She also acknowledged that staying in touch with the needs of your local community is crucial. “Every store is different because every community is different,” Morris offered. “You can shine as a retailer with a heart and passion for what you do.”

Christian broadcasting veteran and author Rod Robison agrees. “The more local you can be and the more community outreach you can do, the more engaged the community will be with your ministry,” he said. “You can’t wait for people to stumble into your store when they want to buy a Bible; you have to let them know you’re there. And it’s not just a promotional issue; it’s an engagement issue.”

More than ever before, Christian retail stores have the distinct advantage of blossoming into a community hub within their cities, big and small. Riskey even sees store closures as a chance for independents to step up. “I think the pendulum is swinging,” he shared from UNITE’s Big Idea stage. “I think we’re under-retailed. I believe that there’s opportunity for churches to have stores.”

RELATIONSHIPS ARE KEY

Exhibitors of all sizes play an important role in introducing new and creative products at UNITE.

UNITE’s exhibit floor may have been slightly smaller this year, but unanimously, attendees view CBA’s annual gathering as a way to ignite new partnerships and cultivate relationships—a key driver in the business. “CBA UNITE serves a lot of purposes, but one of the important ones to a lot of us who’ve been in the industry for awhile, is it almost functions like an annual reunion of sorts where we get to see each other and catch up on what’s been happening in families and really what’s happening with the business, too,” said HarperCollins Christian Publishing Director of Publishing Pete Nikolai. “It’s a great opportunity to get together and discuss trends and celebrate the successes we’ve had over the past year.”

Oftentimes, it’s the one-on-one time— whether in a private suite, on the exhibit hall floor, or even on the convention center concourse—that attendees find most beneficial. “When you get to meet that person for the first time, for instance with a new account, it’s a real connection. You see where you’ve won and lost. It makes the total difference. And when you watch that relationship grow over years and the changes that come along—either good or bad—you’ve had someone that you’ve been connected with,” offered Dayspring’s Terry Biggs, who has attended CBA’s convention every year since 1994. “I think that’s what I see here at CBA. It’s a gathering of those people who stay connected … People look for that personal service that I don’t think we’ll ever replace, and I hope we don’t.”

For authors, especially those who are self-published, UNITE has become a centralized watering hole for networking. “I’m looking at my media sheet, and I already have about 20 media engagements—that’s print, online, TV, and radio. Where else would I have been able to do that?” shared first-time author Reginald Morris, who attended UNITE with his wife, Renea, co-author of the couple’s debut book, Resurrect Your Dead Marriage. “We were able to, in a short drive, come here, meet the media that we needed, meet the retailers who are interested in putting our book on the shelf, and have those face-to-face conversations … It really is a breeding ground for first-time authors—more now than ever before.”

For others, like exhibitor Valerie Wright of Good Work(s) Make A Difference, UNITE is about meeting not just prospective buyers but also establishing friendships with industry peers. “I feel it’s so important to meet like-minded people who come from various backgrounds but all have the same message and foundation of loving Christ,” Wright said. “It’s good to be here and meet a lot of people who are doing great things for the Kingdom.” Good Work(s) Make A Difference is doing its part by donating 25 percent of the company’s net profits from the sale of custom bracelets to charitable causes. Last year alone, they fed 50,000 homeless people in Los Angeles.

Charitable giving is also a core part of CBA’s overarching mission. Since 1998, CBA has given more then $208,000 in cash and material donations to ministries in convention host cities. This year, CBA partnered with BLOC (Believing and Living One Christ), a ministry embedded in one of Cincinnati’s toughest areas providing relief, education, and job training for homeless individuals and victims of domestic abuse, among others. It’s further proof that leaving a legacy involves extending the retail footprint beyond the four walls of a store.

GLOBAL IMPACT ABOUNDS

The legacy of the Christian products industry is not limited to the United States either. Each year, retailers, publishers, and suppliers from more than 50 countries attend UNITE, reminding those who work in this specialized field that they really are taking the Good News around the world. The convention offers opportunities for international rights and licensing sales, but more importantly, it creates space for connection with fellow believers from various cultures.

“It’s just a great place to come to meet people and then find some divine appointments,” said Mike King, founder and president of World Touch Media, an international publisher of Bibles and missional literature distributed in 35 different countries. “I believe in divine appointments—to go where God wants you to go and to do only what God wants you to do and to follow His will—because that’s where you’re going to make the most impact at the end of the day.”

CBA announces new partnerships with South Korea and India, further expanding the industry’s global work.

This year alone, CBA announced new partnerships with South Korea and India, further expanding its global reach.

From the mom-and-pop store in Oklahoma to a bustling Bible publisher in the heart of London, the Christian products industry remains a beacon of hope for the estimated 14 million active Christian households it serves.

“You are throwing a lifeline of truth to people who are drowning in a sea of deception,” Robison encouraged retailers following his illusion and comedy routine alongside fellow author and illusionist Adrian Van Vactor at UNITE’s Legacy Banquet. “Keep your focus on people whose lives you are affecting.”

UNITE 2018 is scheduled to take place in Nashville, Tennessee, July 8-11. With Nashville being home to numerous Christian publishing houses, record labels, and filmmakers, CBA hopes to expand next year’s event by bringing the convention to one of the industry’s leading cities.

—Lindsay Williams

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