A couple of weeks ago I attended the 2012 International Christian Retail Show (ICRS) in Orlando, Florida. The last opportunity I had to go was in 2002. What changes did I see and what do I think of the role of this show for Christian retailers? What did I enjoy most and were there any disappointments? Here are just a few of my thoughts.
1) “Honey, I shrunk the show.” One of the first things I noticed was the size of the show floor. It was at least a fourth of the size as I remembered from 2002. I shared my estimation with a former VP of a major vendor and he said he thought it was even smaller than that. Not only was the show floor smaller but the vendor booths were smaller. Gone were the days where vendors were trying to outdo one another on the title of the best and brightest booth on the floor. We are still talking about one vendor that featured a booth with two levels back in 2002! No one this year had a two-tiered booth.
2) Where are all the authors? In 2002 there were lines upon lines of people standing and waiting to get an autograph from some famed author? I did a little of that myself as I stood in line to see R.C. Sproul. And while I didn’t have to stand in line I had a delightful conversation with Jay Adams at his booth. This year was different. There were opportunities to meet some authors and musical artists (I stood in line to meet Matthew West and Gary Chapman) this year but not nearly as many and the lines were much shorter. There was one author I didn’t need to stand in line to meet which leads to my next point.
3) Oh, the food! One thing that hasn’t changed is the vendor-sponsored dinners. These are dinners which are hosted by some of the larger vendors. I went to two dinners this year and a couple of lunches. One of those was hosted by our very own Baker Publishing Group. While on my way to the bus to take us to dinner I saw Steven James coming down the hotel hallway. My regular readers know I don’t read a lot of fiction but hands down Steven James is my favorite fiction writer. I made a bee-line right for him and said his name, “Steven James” with a delight in my voice. He looked at me and appropriately responded, “And you are?” I introduced myself and told him I had just finished his forthcoming novel Placebo which I thoroughly enjoyed. For the next ten minutes or so we enjoyed some great conversation with him and his wife. My manager asked if I would like my picture taken with him and in a nanosecond I said, “Yes!” The dinner was at Sea World and it was a great time to mingle with the publishing staff and many of Baker’s finest authors. No changes here. The food was good in 2002 and it was good in 2012.
4) The workshops. One of the nice features of ICRS is the many workshops that are offered to retailers. I co-taught one of those workshops on the topic of church relations. I hope the attendees enjoyed what we had to offer. It is here that I experienced a certain amount of inconsistency. Most of the workshops were excellent, offering some valuable and helpful advice that we as retailers could take back and put into practice to make our stores stronger and more useful to our customers. But there was one workshop which was terribly disappointing. I wasn’t sure if it was a workshop or a glorified devotional time. In 2002 I attended several workshops and my experience was the same. Most were great but a couple of them were real duds.
5) Networking and brain storming. This is the perfect time to mingle with other retailers and see what’s working and what’s not. After time on the show floor and in workshops we would often gather for a time of reflection on what we learned and what would work for our store. As we compare notes we often see deficiencies in our operating procedures and areas where we are strong. It is actually quite exhausting since we put in 12-14 hour days. This has remained pretty much the same. In 2002 I did spend more time on the floor but I had to—it was huge and required more time to cover it. But the networking and mingling were just as important then as it is today.
6) It is still an international trade show. It is often easy to forget that this show is attended by people from around the world. This was no more evident than on my last day. As my coworker and I waited for our shuttle to return us to the hotel a young man happened to see our conference badges which show our name and the name of our book store. Looking at our badges he said, “Baker Book House. I’ve been to your store.” We were delighted to hear this and asked him where he was from. His answer surprised us. “I’m from Singapore.” It was one thing to see him at this international retail show but quite another to know he had been to our store in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He explained that his father had a relationship with someone in RBC (Radio Bible Class) ministries and while in Grand Rapids with his father he was told he had to visit Baker Book House. He loved our store and we, of course, love to hear good reports about our store. On the trip back to the hotel we asked about his store in Singapore and some of the challenges he faced. During that short ride back to the hotel my coworker and I were reminded that the ministry of Christian retail really does span the globe.
ICRS has reshaped itself in ten years time. I’ve learned that 2002 was probably the peak for the industry. What lies ahead for the future of this trade show is of great interest to those of us who have the occasional opportunity to attend. The biggest question facing the retailer is fairly simple: Is this worth our time? It is definitely a time to get away from the routine of the store and to be refreshed, to learn about current trends, and learn about opportunities for growth. It is good to see new vendors and to meet people who have simply been up until now a voice on the phone or the addressee of an email. I met several people from various vendors that fit this bill. Now I have faces to go with voices and emails. There is nothing like a face-to-face meeting with someone you’ve worked with for several years.
Would I go again? Absolutely!