Tuesday at ICRS was tiring, but not nearly as exhausting as Monday. I think this was because I had the evening free, which was a first since I arrived. Ten hours non-stop sure beats fifteen.
My first appointment of the day was the “CEO Breakfast” hosted by CBA, the association for Christian Retail. I sat between Bob Munce, CEO of The Munce Group, a marketing group providing services to some 600 independent Christian retail outlets, and Marshall Gage, president of Kirkbride Bible Company, publisher of the famous Thompson Chain Reference Bible. Marshall and I spent most of our time chatting about the National Bible Association. (He is on the Board.)
After we ate, Bill Anderson, the CBA’s president and CEO spoke to us. He noted that retail stores in every category are currently struggling. Thanks to the internet, customers have never been more informed. Large retailers are trying to imitate the intimacy of small retailers. Small retailers are trying to imitate the business professionalism of large retailers.
Bill cited a new CBA study that revealed Christian products are now a $4.63 billion industry (as measured in retail dollars). This includes the entire industry, regardless of where these products are sold. The Christian retail channel accounts for $2.42 billion of these sales, which is up about 2% from two years ago.
Bill made the point that 52% of Christian products are sold by Christian retailers, 33% by general market retailers, and 15% by “other” kinds of distribution. (By comparison, Thomas Nelson sells about 34% of its products through Christian retail.)
As he did last year, Bill encouraged us as suppliers to develop specific channel strategies. In other words, we should have a distinct channel strategy for Christian retail as opposed to the mass market channel. The truth is that we can no longer afford to think merely “by channel.” At Thomas Nelson, we have had to develop specific account strategies.
First of all, I don’t really think the traditional Christian retail channel is that homogeneous anymore. The chain stores are very different from the independents. And the chains are very different from each other. In fact the CBA and the ABA independents are more alike than CBA chains and independents are. More and more, I believe that CBA (the trade association) is representing the indies rather than the chains. This is fine, but, for us, that’s less than half of the channel’s volume.
Bill also spoke about the good work they are doing in training retailers and especially “frontliners” (the clerks who actually work in the store and serve customers). He asked the very important question of how do we engage the next generation of Christian consumers. He said, “We need more products for teens, tweens, 20-somethings, and 30-somethings.” I agree. He also said that most stores were “birthed” by baby boomers and they look like that. If we are going to reach a new generation, the stores must appeal to a younger market.
He noted that what was known as “CBA Advance,” the trade association’s winter exhibition and convention, was being replaced by a new winter event. It doesn’t have a name yet. However, in order to reduce suppliers’ expenses, it won’t have an exhibit floor. It will primarily be a networking opportunity. He said, “Our retailers are demanding two events a year.”
First of all, I support CBA retail. Make no mistake. I want to help them succeed. But I am still not convinced that we need this show. We network with all of our key accounts monthly. We don’t need another show to do this. We also call on all of the top independent accounts regularly, so I don’t think two shows helps us here either. From my perspective, this continues to look like “an event in search of a purpose.”
Bill finished by sharing some practical ways we can help Christian retailers. He encouraged us to:
- Refer consumers to Christian retail
- Encourage our authors to visit Christian retail stores and reference them in the media and in their speaking
- Use store locators on our Web sites and other places to send traffic to Christian retailers
- Refrain from discounting our products directly to consumers
I thought these were all good, practical suggestions.
After the breakfast, Matt Baugher, our VP of Publishing for Spiritual Growth and Christian Thought, and I drove to Buckhead to meet with Andy Stanley, pastor of Northpoint Community Church, one of the largest churches in the country. He also happens to be the son of Dr. Charles Stanley, one of our major authors.
I think Andy is one of the most engaging speakers I know and a very innovative thinker. We have published him in the past and hope to do so again in the future. We discussed a couple of book ideas that got Matt and I really excited. (As the CEO, I don’t get to do much brainstorming with authors anymore, so I enjoyed every minute of the time with Andy.)
After our meeting with Andy, we raced back to our hotel in downtown Atlanta. I had a quick, thirty-minute meeting with Lynn Garrett, Senior Religion Editor for Publishers Weekly. (“PW,” as it is commonly called, is the trade magazine for the entire book publishing industry.) We discussed a wide range of topics, including market trends, the implementation of Thomas Nelson’s One Company initiative, and some of our biggest titles for the fall.
Gail and I then had a long lunch with Sealy Yates, whose company, Yates & Yates, represents some of our biggest authors, including John Eldredge, John Maxwell, Beth Moore, and Erwin McManus. Sealy and I have been friends for a couple of decades, so we talked about our personal lives, our families, and, of course, business. He shared with me his new mission or branding statement, something he and his team have been working on for more than a year. I was very impressed. We also discussed our current projects with a number of his clients.
I then met with Mark Scott, who is the Vice President of Lifeway Christian Stores. He runs the whole operation and reports directly to Lifeway’s CEO, Thom Rainer. As you may know, Lifeway is the second largest Christian retail bookstore chain in the U.S. with about 136 store locations. They are one of our top-ten accounts. We discussed current market conditions and some of our biggest projects for the fall, including 3:16 by Max Lucado and Word of Promise audio Bible.
I then attended the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) Board Meeting. I currently serve as the chairman. As we always do, we reviewed minutes from our last meeting and approved the financial statements. We also approved the auditors’ report and then discussed various associational issues. We had two hours allotted for the meeting, but I am proud to say that we finished in an hour-and-a-half. (Did I mention that I am not particularly fond of long meetings? I may not be good, but I am fast!)
We finished the day with an “Ice Cream Social” event, which Heather Adams set up in our suite in the convention center. This provided an opportunity for the media to come together and meet several of our authors and our senior leadership team. The meeting lasted an hour, then I invited the attendees to watch the 15-minute trailer for the Word of Promise.
The media then had an opportunity to ask Carl Amari, the project’s producer, and Wayne Hastings, our Group Publisher for Bible and Reference products, questions about the project. This is going to be an amazing product (actually several products). Gail has become the new self-appointed, Chief Evangelist. For the last two days, she has been talking it up to everyone she meets. She’s one of the best sales people I have!