The International Christian Retail Show wrapped up last week in Atlanta with CBA, the association of evangelical Christian retailers, reporting total attendance flat with last year's Denver convention, at 9,266. Even as evangelical Christian publishers continue to see healthy sales through expanding retail channels, the story for Christian retailers—and for CBA itself—is one of ongoing struggle in the face of increased competition and consolidation. Attendance at the summer CBA show peaked in 1999 at 14,694 in Orlando, and has steadily declined since.

The flat performance of the summer event follows just a few weeks after CBA announced it was canceling its winter show, CBA Expo (PW, July 9). CBA said it still plans a winter meeting for networking and education, but has yet to provide details. The association faces a steep challenge in extricating itself from the lease it signed for the convention center in Indianapolis in January 2008, as well as in creating an alternative event that will motivate retailers and publishers to attend. CBA will also be affected by a significant loss in revenue from Expo, which CBA president Bill Anderson acknowledged could lead to “new or different staffing.”

Problems with its annual meetings as well as store closings are the two main issues confronting the association. Anderson was unavailable to PW for an interview after the ICRS, but responded to questions through media representative Nancy Guthrie. CBA reported “professional attendance” (total people minus exhibitors and youth) at ICRS as 2,859, up 4% over last year's 2,750. When asked how many of that number represented retailers, Guthrie said that while the figure is primarily retailers, “it does include other industry professionals.”

Atlanta is considered a top location for this show, with many retailers and exhibitors within driving distance. A look at the numbers in 2004—the last year ICRS, then known as CBA International, was in Atlanta—shows CBA reported professional attendance of 3,816 and gave its member number as 2,407, with Anderson estimating then that about 1,600 of them were independents. Current membership is given as 2,055—with, according to CBA, 47% of those being independents, 35% chains and 18% church, camp or campus bookstores. That means the number of indies—at least those that are CBA members—appears to have dropped to about 965 stores.

Asked to confirm that number, Guthrie said that since the chain figure includes a large number of independents who have two or more stores, the 47% number “would better be defined as single-store independents.” Asked about recent store attrition, CBA said there was a net gain of 303 Christian store locations last year.

That gain should mean there are more Christian stores now than in 2004, but that is not the perception in the industry. Guthrie acknowledged that CBA doesn't have definitive numbers on how many Christian retail stores there are in the country, but said the association is exploring some ways to expand the sample size of store account information so it can come up with a better estimate.

David Lewis, marketing director for the Baker Publishing Group, agreed that no one knows exactly how many stores there are, but said, “Our sales reps who call on independent stores can clearly see a steady decrease in their territories' volume and the number of stores.” According to Lewis, several larger stores have closed, and the new ones are very small and light on volume. “Yes, there are new stores each year, but they are not making up for the overall decline in independent [Christian] store volume,” Lewis observed.

CBA continues to urge publishers to develop “channel management strategies” that support Christian retailers, and most of the publishers say that they have. But at ICRS Thomas Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt told PW the “channels” strategy “is so last year. Major accounts are the key now. They all want exclusives and an approach that is tailored to them.”

As CBA tries to figure out what to do for a winter meeting, the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association is moving ahead with plans for the Christian Book Expo, a consumer fair planned for Dallas on March 20—22, 2009, that may not compete directly with a new winter CBA show, but could siphon off event money. ECPA president Mark Kuyper said the show would stay in Dallas as it becomes established, but ECPA might eventually look at doing similar events in Atlanta, Chicago and Southern California.

As for next year's ICRS, CBA is no doubt hoping the return to Orlando will mean a bump in attendance.