CBA Numbers Down, But Optimism Still High
Lynn Garrett and Phyllis Tickle -- 2/19/01

The conventional wisdom has been that bad times bring good sales for Christian books--but that pattern d sn't seem to have held at this year's Christian Booksellers Association Expo, held January 29-February 2 in Louisville, Ky. Christmas was soft for many retailers and there's plenty of recession talk in the air, according to industry professionals who spoke with PW.

Show numbers were down significantly over last year's Expo, with 5,249 in attendance (compared to 6,499 in 2000) representing 1,570 stores (1,727 in 2000). Exhibitor numbers were also down, 241 versus 256 last year. Publisher numbers held steady (101 last year and 100 this year).

Ernie Martin, chairman of the board for CBA and president of Whittemore's in Needham Heights, Mass., told PW, "The mood seems good in spite of disappointing sales. Christian bookstores don't usually suffer in economic cycles, but the slide began the day after Thanksgiving." Some speculated that the downturn might have influenced show attendance. Several publishers complained about thin traffic--Eric Major, v-p for religious publishing at Doubleday, characterized it as "terrible." Bryan Williams, regional sales manager for Abingdon, said, "This has definitely been the slowest Expo I've ever been to." Doug Ross, president of the
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Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, said much the same, but added, "There have been changes in the way stores buy--through wholesalers, marketing groups and direct from publishers."
But other booksellers had a different experience. Curtis and Lois McGinnis own Cedar Springs Christian Stores, a 28,000-square-foot store in Knoxville, Tenn. They told PW, "We had an excellent Christmas and January. December was up 5% over 1999, and January was up 30% over the previous year." The McGinnises brought 16 employees to the show and said they were buying in every category. "It's a great benefit for our people to see new product." Nancy Ganzel, owner of Commitments, a Parable store in Racine, Wis., was also actively buying. She said, "I seldom go to a show without the intention of buying."

Nearly everyone praised the convention facility and downtown Louisville, where the show was held. Both were hailed as more convenient and user friendly than the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, where Expo has been held the past few years.

Distribution Churning
The biggest story at the show was the ferment on the distribution side of the book business. Several who spoke with PW noted there has been a scramble to retool and reposition in the wake of the failed Ingram/B&N deal and the rise of e-commerce. There is also continuing fallout from Spring Arbor's history of service problems and its perceived abandonment of smaller CBA market publishers.

Anchor Distributors, owned by Whitaker House Publishers, continues its aggressive expansion, adding new customers and 90,000 square feet of new warehouse space by April, which will allow tripling of inventory this year. At the show, Anchor was promoting itself as "the alternative," offering an across-the-board 42% discount on books and Bibles with no minimum orders, no restocking fees and same-day shipping. Dick Samuels, national accounts manager, confirmed Anchor's position as the number-four distributor in the CBA market and said, "We're not trying to be pioneers. We are doing some experimenting with e-commerce, Web sites and delivery systems, but I don't want to give away anything right now."

Steve Arthur, new president of Spring Arbor and attending his first Expo in that role, said, "We are the industry leader and intend to stay that way. My job is to bring organizational focus to all our different marketing groups." No one contests Spring Arbor's current position at number one. However, there is disagreement over who is number two, a position claimed by both Appalachian and Riverside.

During the show, Riverside Book and Bible and its publishing arm, World Bible, announced a management buyout led by Riverside president Skip Knapp and Rick Pigott, former CEO of Spring Arbor, with funding from Huron Capital Partners of Detroit and 11 Riverside executives and former Spring Arbor employees. Rob Murphy will be v-p of sales (his father, Tom, sold Spring Arbor to Ingram in 1997). Pigott will be senior v-p of business development for the new company, RiversideWorld; Knapp, who has been with Riverside since 1989 and is also a former Spring Arbor executive, will be president. Knapp told PW, "We think we can become the company that Spring Arbor used to be. We will reposition and reengineer Riverside from a niche, regional distributor to a full-line, full-service Christian distributor. No one's doing that anymore." He added, "We'll double the title base beyond what Appalachian and Anchor offer, shorten delivery times and do it without a multiwarehouse national network." Asked how, Knapp declined to give details.

Knapp did outline a new "consignment initiative" with the 550-store Munce Marketing Group. The new alliance offers Munce stores all RiversideWorld products on consignment--"Pay only for what you sell--when you sell it!" trumpets the brochure. RiversideWorld pledges to stock every product in the Munce catalogues--at "a couple points deeper discount," according to Knapp--and to build and maintain a free e-commerce site for each store. Knapp pointed out, "This provides us with an instant large customer base."

Asked whether there is really enough industry growth to support the venture long-term, Knapp asserted, "There are 10,000 Christian stores of one size or another out there--although some may be a few shelves in a feed store--and they need this service." Others in the industry find Knapp's estimate generous. CBA v-p and COO Dorothy Gore told PW their membership was holding steady at about 2,400 stores and estimated the total number of Christian stores nationwide at about 5,000, a number affirmed by ECPA's Doug Ross. Others place the number of viable businesses even lower, in the 3,000-4,000 range. (CBA d s count each unit of a chain or marketing group as a single store, a change made several years ago.)

In a phone interview after Expo, Appalachian president Tom Torbett emphasized the continuing vitality of the distribution business (he was at the White House Prayer Breakfast during the show). "Distributors can still do things that publishers can't do--be a single source with same-day shipping for, in our case, 900-1,000 vendors." At Expo, the Appalachian booth featured home-schooling materials, and the distributor looks to be carving out a specialty niche. Torbett said the home-schooling market is "a great asset for Christian bookstores. It's high-maintenance work, and we provide turnkey service that g s well beyond regular distribution. The stores don't have to be experts in home-schooling because we are."

Another paradigm for distribution was outlined by David Troutman, director of sales for FaithWorks, the new Christian distribution unit of NBN that provides smaller publishers with full representation, warehousing and fulfillment, billing and collections, and returns processing. FaithWorks offers retailers a 47% discount on books. Troutman previously launched Christian Distribution Services with former Spring Arbor president Larry Carpenter, the current general manager for FaithWorks, and he emphasized to PW that while they have not solicited any of their former CDS clients, several have chosen to follow them to FaithWorks.At the show, Troutman announced a newly inked deal with Pnuema Life, a charismatic publisher.

Fiction continues to be the hot category, even independent of the Left Behind juggernaut. Last year the first Christy Awards for excellence in Christian fiction were established by a consortium of publishers--including Bethany House, Baker Book House, Broadman & Holman, Multnomah, Thomas Nelson, Tyndale House, Zondervan and others. The respected magazine Christianity Today threw its weight behind the prizes with a $25,000 grant. Also circulating was a first draft of a guide for merchandising fiction designed for CBA bookseller training. An ABA version is also planned. The 95-store Lifeway chain is conducting a controlled study of the effectiveness of merchandising fiction by subcategory.

Leadership Restructured
CBA announced a leadership restructuring that will include a smaller board of directors and four newly created advisory councils (for smaller stores, mid-sized and above stores, chains and franchisees, and suppliers). Instead of voting by region, stores will vote according to size or store type. On the 11-member board of directors will be four independent retailers, three suppliers, one national chain or franchise retailer and the chairman and vice-chairman of CBA, who must also be independents. CBA president Bill Anderson (currently on sabbatical) is the 11th member. The first election under the new structure will be this spring. CBA chairman Ernie Martin called member reaction "uniformly positive."

A new branding campaign was announced by Tyndale House, which has brought all its children's product together in one catalogue. Tyndale has also partnered with Dorling Kindersley in a new line of children's books that will carry both publishers' names and be sold into CBA by Tyndale and into ABA accounts by DK. The campaign also includes other distribution deals. Nelson gift unit J. Countryman announced a copublication deal with Hallmark that will take its product into 6,000 Gold Crown/Hallmark outlets.

There were two big books at this year's Expo. Retailer expectations are high for perennial bestselling author Max Lucado's He Chose the Nails (Word) and for the numerous licensed products that accompany it, including apparel and gift items. Also attracting attention was the surprise Christmas hit The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson (Multnomah), which passed the one million mark just before the show and won Christian Retailing's Retailers' Choice Award in nonfiction. Even on the traditionally slow Friday, the Multnomah booth hummed with activity as booksellers placed more orders for Jabez and a new line of related products.

Next year's Expo will be held Jan. 28-Feb. 1 in Indianapolis.