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A major shift has occurred in the range and mix of publications available today. There are more than twice as many titles than a decade ago, and smaller, niche publications have eased out larger titles, with the top 25 titles being squeezed the most.
Ten years ago 54 percent of volume came from the 25 largest titles. Today this is dramatically reversed: Almost 60 percent of volume comes from several thousand smaller titles.
Yet there has been no corresponding change in the industry's physical infrastructure to support this shift. Mainline and front end merchandising for most retailers hasn't been adapted to the new trends in magazine consumption, and information and logistics infrastructure have a way to go in terms of producing optimal sales, store by store.
"We need to migrate from the industry's traditional, one-size-fits-all, single-copy mindset to models that fit a greater variety of retailing approaches," says John Loughlin, president of TV Guide Publishing Group in Tulsa, Okla.
Loughlin and Peter Kreisky, chairman of Boston-based Kreisky Media Consultancy, Inc., uncovered these trends as part of New York-based Magazine Publishers of America's (MPA) Retail Growth Initiative, which began last year as program aimed at bringing new life to magazine sales in the retail industry.
Some retailers, both inside and outside the supermarket world, have embraced this shift toward smaller niche titles and have experienced dramatic results. Not surprisingly, bookseller Barnes & Noble is one of them, employing a strategy that supermarket operators could find quite adaptable.
"B&N has designed its magazine section as a major in-store destination to enhance customers' in-store experience," says Kreisky, who spoke at MPA's Retail Marketing Conference in March. "The magazine section is strategically located, almost always to the right of the front door, close to the cafe -- a location that encourages browsing and lingering. It has proprietary, high-quality fixtures, and offers a broad and deep selection tailored to each store."
B&N also aggressively cross-merchandises, according to Kreisky: Computer magazines are located next to computer books, cooking magazines are next to cookbooks, and so on. It also uses highly visible promotion fixtures.
The results are impressive. "Magazine sales at B&N have marginally outpaced overall growth," says Kreisky. "Out-of-stocks are extraordinarily low; sell-through levels are the highest in the industry, at levels to make you salivate."
Even some supermarkets have adjusted to the new publishing paradigm. "Wegmans has embraced magazines' vitality as a competitive differentiator," notes Kreisky. "Magazines are part of Wegmans' 'Street of Shops,' a concept designed to engage customers and provide a one-of-a-kind shopping experience. You'll see a lot of cross-merchandising at Wegmans when there's a clear connection between the magazine and the department that will drive sales of both. Plus the commitment to magazines comes all the way from the top: Wegmans' top management believes in magazines."
Farm Fresh has also embraced magazines, creating areas in its stores, like Barnes & Noble, where shoppers can sit and browse through publications. Often these reading areas happen to be adjacent to in-store Starbucks locations, which the chain has recently begun installing.
Safeway and Kroger have developed fixtures that show off magazines to their best advantage, allowing the shopper to see the entire magazine cover whenever possible, and enabling the products to promote themselves.
Unfortunately, such efforts represent the exception, not the norm, and this disparity is apparent in overall market share trends. While the supermarket channel still represents the largest class of trade for magazines, its share of market has declined to 38 percent from 43 percent over the past decade, says Kreisky.
This decline is due to a number of factors. For one thing, Kreisky cites increasing competition for space at the front end, from beverage, snack, candy, and cigarette manufacturers -- some of which include strong marketers.
Then there's the squeeze on total merchandising space at the front end, due to the increasing prominence of self-checkout machines. "Not only do these mean less waiting in line," says Kreisky, "but the consumer now has to be more focused on scanning their own groceries, not idly scanning the magazine racks."
Not all is lost, however. Supermarkets can still turn the magazine category into a strong profit center by incorporating some of the best practices that are making certain operators' programs stand out.
"They must promote the incredibly important connections -- the visceral relationships -- between magazines and their readers, the supermarket shoppers," says Kreisky. "They must think differently, not just the front end and mainline, but also seek corporate support for effective cross-merchandising.
"Finally, [supermarkets] must make magazines a mainstay of every store -- just like the service deli -- and make magazine displays part and parcel of a unique customer experience."
To find out just how supermarkets can accomplish this, the TV Guide Publishing Group, which is also involved in the Retail Growth Initiative, undertook its own research to learn how it could help its retail customers stimulate demand for magazines. "We need to develop new approaches to magazine retailing that incorporate how the retail marketplace behaves today, and a vision five years out," says Loughlin.
To do this, TV Guide Publishing Group first addressed the retailers. In 2004 the publisher embarked on a "Top-to-Top" program to raise the visibility of magazines to the highest-level management of its retail customers. "How many of us c.e.o.'s have called on our major retailers?" he says. "We don't flinch at flying to see Procter & Gamble -- a major advertiser -- at a moment's notice. But few of us ever make it to Kroger, one of America's largest supermarket chains, which is also based in Cincinnati. Top-to-top means c.e.o.-to-c.e.o., and we're finding this can mean a very different, more strategic discussion than the magazine industry has had before."
Getting in focus
The publishing company's research consisted of studying several focus groups of supermarket shoppers, and the role and relevance of magazines to them: their attitudes and behaviors around magazines, magazines' role in enhancing the shopping experience, and their impact on customer loyalty.
Among TV Guide Publishing Group's findings:
-Supermarket shoppers get ideas for meals, new products, and home projects from the pages of magazines.
-There were strong requests from consumers for more cross-merchandising from the supermarket industry for relevant magazines to be displayed and sold close to matching products. Several of the groups studied suggested breaking up the magazine display and placing magazines in related areas of the store -- wine magazines in the wine section, for instance, or health and beauty magazines in the corresponding aisle.
-In one group, respondents suggested that cooking demonstrations could focus on a recipe from a current magazine and allow customers to sample the dish and pick up the magazine at the same time.
"Almost without exception, the consumers we talked to demanded retailers do a lot better with their displays," says Loughlin. "Mainline displays should have excellent lighting, be well stocked and organized by topic area, show the full covers instead of simply the title, and perhaps be situated in an area of the store that's heavily traveled, like the milk or bakery section, or in an area where customers often have to wait for service, like the deli or pharmacy departments."
The next phase of the Retail Growth Initiative will further explore the impact of design on the category. "We plan to apply the best of design thinking to the next phase of MPA research," says Loughlin. "We want to innovate how magazines are sold at retail."