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The spring issue of "Wild Oats" magazine, the consumer-focused publication launched by -- and named after -- the Boulder, Colo.-based natural and organic food retailer of the same name (soon to be acquired by Whole Foods Market) will feature a new "Ask the Nutritionist" section, in which one of Wild Oats' staff nutritionists addresses a diet-related question posed by one of the publication's readers.
What's noteworthy about this is that the magazine's new department wasn't dreamed up by the retailer or the editors at its publishing partner, El Segundo, Calif.-based Active Interest Media, Inc. Rather, credit for the magazine's new feature goes completely to the reader, a Wild Oats shopper who'd sent in a unsolicited diet-related question after the first issue published in January.
Such a response triggered some other additions to the publication as well. The following issue will offer an "Ask the Sommelier" feature, in which one of the company's two sommeliers will field reader questions about wine.
This is just one example of a retailer wielding a custom publication to engage its shoppers in a way that goes beyond merely hawking the products it sells. The custom magazine can be an effective tool for connecting with shoppers.
Wild Oats originally developed the magazine to showcase its natural, organic, and gourmet foods, while also providing in-depth information on topics such as health and wellness, food trends, the environment, locally grown foods, and social responsibility. Now, working with its publishers, the retailer is carefully evaluating reader input to determine the content of future issues.
"The reason we started the magazine is to educate our shoppers about the products we have available, and the lifestyle that those products represent," says Wild Oats' senior copywriter, Melinda Saldenais.
Rules of engagement
Focusing more closely on the shopper is how retailers can develop content that successfully engages readers, says Diana Pohly, president of Pohly Co. a Boston-based custom publishing firm that creates publications for retailers.
"Retailers are effectively using custom content to create an engagement relationship," notes Pohly. "It's a way in which they can show consumers that they know who they are, and that they appreciate their business. At the same time, it's a way they can add value to their relationship."
Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion, one of Pohly's custom publishing clients, worked with Pohly to develop its "In Bloom" magazine, which is available to shoppers of the chain's Bloom stores. Food Lion gives readers lifestyle information well outside of the pure-food arena -- an approach that's a far cry from the positioning of its first issue, published in the summer of 2005.
"It was originally a magazine that would provide information, recipes, tips, and the latest and greatest going on at Bloom," says Karen Peterson, Food Lion's special projects manager, corporate communications. "In early 2006 we took another look at the 'In Bloom' magazine, and it evolved into something of a little bit more of a lifestyle publication. Our first issue with the new focus was around July 2006, and the content went well beyond simple recipes, and included articles on fitness, aids to your life, to your family, and local information."
One issue, for example, featured quick tips for reducing the amount of clutter in one's living space. Another section, called "Your World," highlights areas of interest in Bloom's operating areas. "In December we featured Charlotte, N.C.," says Peterson. "Articles covered local happenings, things to do, and included a Q&A with a popular area chef."
Of course, such publications remain a vehicle for promoting the store's products and services as well, but according to Pohly, to be effective, they must deliver more compelling information than a simple FSI. If there's too much promotion, the publication will be perceived by the readers as a glorified ad flyer, which will dilute its value and cause it to fall short of its mission to engage shoppers.
Wild Oats keeps the engagement real by adhering strongly to editorial ethics standards, much in the way that a traditional print publication (including Progressive Grocer) would abide by the standards set by a business publishing trade group, New York-based American Business Media.
Wild Oats draws a clear line between editorial content and promotional content.
"We have received many requests from suppliers who are interested in submitting articles," says Wild Oats' Saldenais. "We tell them that their submissions can't contain product mentions -- they must address a specific issue, or speak about the benefits of a category of product, but they can't push their own products in the column."
Promotions do have their place in Wild Oats magazine, but they're clearly labeled as such. "We have a section called 'What's New,' where we promote our new products and services," says Saldenais. "But we make it clear that it's promotional copy."
Food Lion uses its publication to promote some of its in-store customer-service technology, to better prepare shoppers for when they visit. "Our December issue featured an article about our Breeze information kiosk, which is in the Bloom stores," says Peterson. "We used the slogan 'Forget your grocery list on purpose' in the article. The kiosk system enables our shoppers to maintain their shopping lists online, and they can come in and print them in the store. The kiosk also lets them check prices and locate items."
One would think that retailer publications, given their audiences, present strong marketing opportunities for suppliers. But according to Pohly, retailers haven't really leveraged this opportunity.
"There is a great advertising opportunity in these publications that retailers have been slow to take advantage of," she says. "Retailer publications are typically targeted toward the retailer's best customers, which is just the audience the suppliers are looking to reach. Plus they can be used to help solidify the relationship between the retailer and its suppliers."
Wild Oats, however, has jumped at the opportunity presented by the advertising in its magazine. "We outsource our advertising to the publisher, and use it to pay the costs of the publications," says Saldenais. "In fact, one of the criteria in deciding on a publisher was that they had to handle ad sales for the magazine."
If there's a downside to a print magazine as a communications vehicle, it's the printing cost involved. Cost increases have prompted many retailers to shy away from getting into glossy magazine publishing. "They operate on thin margins already," says Pohly of grocers. "Many retailers won't invest in anything that doesn't immediately move product."
Indeed, even Pohly client Food Lion has decided to cease its print offering following the upcoming issue; instead, the retailer will reformat In Bloom as a digital magazine for the Web.
While Pohly says she believes this kind of shift is fine for retailers that already have strong Web traffic, she adds that cost reasons alone shouldn't dictate a grocer's decision to go online.
"The Web is ideal for retailers that don't want the expense, and is perfect for companies such as catalogers whose customers are used to visiting their Web sites," she explains. "But for most grocers, jumping on the Web is not a natural act, and is not the traditional means of communicating with their shoppers."
For those retailers that do have strong online traffic, however, the Web can become an almost limitless information source for shoppers. Many larger chains that have made strides in building traffic through online ordering have also developed their Web sites into comprehensive information portals -- particularly in the area of health and wellness, which generates tremendous consumer interest right now.
Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway created an online Wellness Center packed with articles on healthy living, and featuring a special area for mature shoppers, the Aging Well Health Center.
Des Moines, Iowa-based regional independent Hy-Vee has a large archive of health-and-wellness articles written by company dietitians, complemented by information provided by third-party health content aggregator Healthnotes.
What it boils down to, says Pohly, is determining what the retailer is trying to accomplish through custom media, then executing a program that's consistent with the retailer's brand and value proposition.
"What is key, is creating that value-based relationship that keeps the consumer engaged with the brand," she says.