ICRS, the Christian retail trade show that ran July 15-18 in Orlando provided the opportunity for PW to speak in one place to virtually all of the distributors in the evangelical Christian market segment. Their comments added up to this: while e-book and Internet sales continue to challenge the Christian bookstore community, the digital transition offers something of a silver lining to wholesalers serving the niche.

Tighter inventories that mean orders don't reach publishers' buying minimums have caused many retailers to turn more to distributors, while publishers are increasingly using the middlemen's print on demand (POD) and distribution services to reduce their warehouse stock. “There are more good reasons than ever for retailers to partner with distributors,” said CBA chairman and church bookstore director George Thomsen, citing Internet sales, POD, and fewer reps calling on stores because publishers have cut back their marketing staffs. The Munce marketing group, serving several hundred independents, has worked “more strategically” with distributors in the past 18 months than ever before, noted President Kirk Blank.

Destiny Image, a publisher to Pentacostal/charismatic Christians, announced a deal at ICRS that will see Ingram's Spring Arbor Christian products division become its full-service distributor. “When times are tough, you look at your inventory costs,” said Destiny Image Sales and Marketing Director Tom Wright. And HarperCollins, Zndervan’s parent company, made Ingram its full-service provider late last year. Ingram has handled Zondervan's ABA distribution for 18 months.

Said Ingram Chief Commercial Officer Shawn Everson: “Overall, Christian product is growing, both domestically and internationally.” Not all that growth is in physical books, however. Since launching a rebranded service to the Christian channel two years ago, Spring Arbor has added more gifts and toys to its catalog, as have competitors.

Gift SKUs have grown from around 1,000 to 5,000 at Send The Light Distribution, which debuted its new name at ICRS following the March management team buyout of the former STL Distribution North America from international Bible ministry Biblica. Communion cups are now the newly owned business's biggest seller, said president & CEO Glenn Bailey, noting that the ongoing addition of church supplies and gifts has been in response to stores' requests as they further diversify. “

Non-book and Bibles sales were up 30-40% in the past year for Anchor Distributors, according to v-p John Whitaker. “They can’t digitize or download those yet,” he said. “Although with 3-D printers, who knows.”

Gift sales have increased sevenfold at New Day Christian Distributors since the once music-only distributor added them about six years ago, said the company's director of product acquisitions, Michael Turner. Among its lines are educational toys and games from Melissa & Doug, which debuted its first Christian-themed products for the channel in Orlando.

Distributors and suppliers were reluctant to speculate on how the recently finalized Zondervan acquisition of Thomas Nelson might impact distribution. For several years Zondervan has insisted smaller-volume stores order its titles from distributors, while Nelson has continued to accept such orders.

In the past 18 months, both Send The Light and Anchor have joined Spring Arbor in offering POD services. The move has enabled Anchor's Whitaker House sister publishing company to bring back 50 previously out of print titles, said Whitaker.

Though neither company has pursued e-book options, Spring Arbor offers digital sales to Berean Christian Stores and to members of the Covenant and Parable store groups.