During its annual international convention, The Association for Christian Retail (CBA) announced a partnership with entrepreneur Edward Roush on new data-driven solutions for reversing declining customer traffic and falling sales at Christian stores.

The convention, Unite 2018, was held at Gaylord Opryland Resort Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn., from July 8-11, gathering booksellers, publishers, gift companies, and authors to share product information and innovative ways to revive a struggling industry. Through the new partnership, outlined during the Future of the Industry Breakfast on Tuesday, Roush and the CBA will work with Ruf Strategic Solutions, a data-analytics company, to interpret data that will allow stores to increase their customer base by providing products they want.

“We’re at the crossroads of a new era, at the intersection of the gospel and technology,” said Roush, who previously tried to take over the nonprofit Feed the Children organization. “Our idea is to assist [Christian retail] stores by making millions of dollars worth of data available to them to give them a picture of who their existing customers are, then use that data to help bring new customers in.”

The Roush Foundation now owns 75% of CBA’s for-profit arm, the CBA Service Corporation, and Roush told PW that he’s invested $1 million in the CBA and its new initiative, including a reimbursement incentive to attend UNITE 2018. Stores will provide basic data they gather, such as names and phone numbers, that Ruf Strategic Solutions will analyze along with other data such as census information, and pass back to the stores. CBA-member stores can purchase this data analysis with the reimbursement money in order to target customers and increase sales.

“Retailers are hungry for knowledge,” said Curtis Riskey, CBA’s president. “We saw this in attendance at workshops this year. Historically, attendance has been 30-40, but this year it was 100-120 for workshops.”

CBA will offer training to retailers on gathering and using data via the CBA website, with more details expected to come later.

“I’m very excited and I think stores are very excited, they see opportunity on both sides; helping the industry and supporting the stores individually,” said Riskey. “These things are happening rapidly, with more things to come. We’re trying to move as quickly as possible.”

Meanwhile, publishers at UNITE 2018 had mostly positive remarks about the show, formerly known as the International Christian Retail Show (ICRS). The CBA, which did not announce attendance numbers in 2017, reports that the turnout was up from last year at over 1,700 people; attendance had been consistently falling in recent years. And just three booths of the total available did not sell, according to Riskey, though a PW count of exhibitor listings totaled 158 this year—an 8% decrease from last year.

“We had to be here, even though it’s smaller,” said Dave Thornton, v-p strategic partnerships at David C Cook, which was promoting its new Francis Chan book, Letters to the Church (Sept.), and offered steep discounts on other titles to attending retailers. “There are only 500 registered CBA buyers here, but we want to support brick-and-mortar stores and stand by them in this extremely challenging time.”

“It’s not bigger, it hasn’t grown, but it feels healthier,” said Keren Balzer, FaithWords acquiring editor. “This year feels like there is more of an effort toward re-engaging and reinvesting; and we need it. We cannot allow this event to disappear.”

This year’s location, following Cincinnati in 2016 and 2017, made a difference to a lot of publishers, including Carlton Garborg, founder and president of Broadstreet Press, who also noted a shift in the conference.

“The show has turned more into a networking event than a selling event, but it’s still valuable to attend,” he said. “It seems to be busier than it has been—being in Nashville can’t hurt.”

For David Hill, executive director of sales and marketing at Kregel Publications, it was his 49th year at the show. He’s seen the conference’s heyday and as well as the more recent lean years. “For the last couple of years it was like you were at a funeral, but this year people are excited,” he said. “There is definitely better traffic than last year.”

Linda Howard, associate publisher for children and youth at Tyndale House, said, “The more we can meet with and support retailers and create products for their stores, the better. We want to help drive people to their stores.”

UNITE 2019 is returning to Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland from June 25-28.

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