Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: E-Commerce is coming to the Newsstand. Jerry Lynch of MBR.org Gives an Update

By Linda Ruth (Crossposted at BoSacks.com)

One topic that remains of consuming interest to all of the members of the Publisher’s Roundtable (Post-Pandemic, as we fervently hope)—Joe Berger, Bo Sacks, Sherin Pierce, Samir Husni, Gemma Peckham, and me—is the issue of developing a workable e-commerce solution for publishers wanting to participate in the click-to-curb model that retailers and their customers are increasingly adapting to.

In a 2020 Roundtable, we learned from Jerry Lynch that the MBR , along with its member publishers, is working hard to make that goal a reality. Jerry recently joined us to give us an update on their progress. 

Sherin: Long before COVID the Old Farmer’s Almanac was committed to working with retailers on their e-commerce platforms, and we did develop some programs, although not in as universal a sense as we would like. The changing shopping patterns that came with COVID make this issue an urgent one for all of us. The retailers are developing and implementing their e-commerce platforms, but to a very great extent magazines are not a part of them. 

Jerry: Our goal is to make sure that magazines are able to participate in these retailer e-commerce solutions. Our focus is the click-and-collect model, where magazines will be distributed right out of the retailers’ stores, as opposed to from a centralized distribution location. The first step is to develop or identify a platform that facilitates it, and the second is retailers having to connect to the platform. We’re making progress on both sides of that equation. We spent the last 5 months working through the mechanics of the process with a small group of titles, comprising about 60 UPCs in total. It requires getting the titles up on the platform and having them change the issues on a regular basis so that the images are current. It’s a complicated process and it took some time. 

Existing platforms such as Syndigo, which MBR is using, are built for traditional product. We don’t fit the mold. Most products are more static. It’s a plus that we turn over, we stay fresh, but it makes it hard to shoehorn frequency magazines into the system. Yet we have gotten to the point where we’re set up to do it for monthlies. Over the last few weeks, we successfully delivered titles via the Syndigo platform at a northeast retailer. This included changing out cover images. We have some fine tuning to do but Weeklies will be next step.  Another hurdle is that retailers will be fulfilling their customer’s orders from inventory, and in a scan-based-trading environment, the retailers typically don’t actually have a record of their inventory. But these are challenges we must meet, and obstacles we must overcome. By 2022, over 30% of retailer sales will be from e-commerce. We’re going to want to be part of that. 

Sherin: Right. If we can’t find a way to be part of it, magazines will be left behind. 

Jerry: To make it happen, we as an industry need to convince ourselves this is a big opportunity, and one that’s worth the investment.

Linda: What do you see for the rollout? 

Jerry: We’ll start with a small group of magazines that can demonstrate success to the retailer. From there, we grow. We actually have items in E-comm  We have such a wide array of titles, but our space at retail has been eroding. If we can replace the loss of mainline space with an online presence, in a way consumers want to engage, that will be tremendous. The opportunities are huge. But it’s not just getting the magazines included on the retailers’ e-commerce sites. They also have to be discoverable. So how can we make them easy to find? 

Joe: This question comes into play both online and in the physical store itself. My experience is, if we say a magazine is in a store and someone can’t find it, nine times out of ten it’s there and they’ve overlooked it. We need to come up with a response to “it’s not there.” 

Sherin: We have a “Where to Buy” function on our site. It works well for retail, and could be also adapted for the e-commerce portion. 

Joe: Smaller titles won’t be in every store in a chain. If a chain’s click-to-curb function isn’t individualized on a by-store basis, this will be something we’ll have to solve.

Jerry: Yes, and as magazines increasingly participate in e-commerce, there will be more opportunities for sell-out situations in the stores. Our industry’s participation is about increasing our opportunity to broaden the selection, and to broaden our engagement with consumers. We have to make sure it’s a satisfying experience–that when the consumer goes to the store, having ordered online, or created a list on-line,the product is there. Also, think about when product is delivered. An issue could hit the store on Friday, Saturday, or up till Tuesday. Our approach is to say Tuesday. 

Bo: It makes sense: under-promise, over-deliver. 

From top left clockwise: Jerry Lynch of MBR.org, Joe Berger, Bo Sacks, Sherin Pierce, Linda Ruth

Sherin: What titles are participating in the test? 

Jerry: They include Bauer, National Geographic, Trusted Media, Penny Press, Hearst, Centennial—it’s a pretty good mix.  

Sherin: Are any retailers easier to work with, and can stand as an example of how it can be done successfully? 

Jerry: Overall we’re finding that they are eager to work with the category, but most are somewhat daunted by the particular challenges we present. 

Joe: What other projects is the MBR working on? 

Jerry: We’re starting in on category advocacy. Our target is to educate the upper management in the retailer community about the value of magazines. We’ve lost space, and the loss of space resulted in the loss of sale, which in turn results in the further loss of space. Trying to stop that snowball will require effort, it will require new research, it will require an investment on the part of our industry. Our productivity has gone up—that is, we’re putting more product through less space. And some of our benefits, for example our offering the ease of scan-based-trading to our retail partners, aren’t quantified in ways that show up on the retailers’ spreadsheets. We’re not just transactional; we bring people into the stores, we show them what to buy; there are so many benefits to the category. It’s up to us to tell that story. 

Bo: We’ve always been our own worst enemy. We’re an industry of marketing geniuses who can’t market our industry. 

Joe: That benefit-based business model needs to be sold not only to retailers, but to publishers as well. Many are turning away from the newsstand. 

Jerry: And that’s something else we can do through our communication with our publishers. Over the course of the year, we plan to do more webinars, and we’re also looking into the possibility of a physical event. People want to get back together. We’re focusing on getting the right content in the right format.

Editor’s note: Want to learn more about MBR? Go to mymbr.org

Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: David Atkins of Newsstand.co.uk – Newsstand Concierge

By Linda Ruth, cross posted on Bosacks.com

If you are unfamiliar with David Atkins and his business, newsstand.co.uk, he is almost certainly not unfamiliar with you. Newsstand.co.uk, the world’s largest print newsstand online, has over 4,000 magazines available with same day dispatch, worldwide. 

The Pandemic Roundtable—Joe Berger, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, Samir Husni, Bo Sacks, and me—welcomed him to our group to talk about his operation, the movement to print-on-demand, and the opportunities for publishers moving into online sales. David’s business began in 1898 as a family wholesaler business, JG Palmer. Changes in the industry, with the consequent losses of many independent wholesalers, led the company to reassess what the needs of the customer were, and how they could help. The result was the shift to online, beginning with subscriptions and moving to single copies in 2011. Today, their online strategy enables publishers to get their publications into the hands of the reader through internet sales and online orders as economically and as quickly as possible. Through their concierge service, they are able to offer publications to readers based on their area of interest. 

Joe: When did your shift to online take place? 

David:  We stopped being a wholesaler in 2006, dabbled with projects for Tesco’s and national newspaper publishers and started concentrating on online sales in 2009. We started working with independent publishers in 2015. It’s been a nice journey. We get our copies from the wholesalers, various distributors and directly from the publishers themselves. We sell either subs or single copy at the same price point, it’s the same thing to us with the only difference being the frequency of the purchase. We’ve gone from 100% subs to, today, about 50/50. It’s slowly tilting to single copy. Maybe 10% of customers will buy more than 1 copy and we have some voracious customers. 

Joe: How different is your warehouse setup now from when you were a retail tieline? 

David: Very different. We had a huge packing machine, unique on the planet, that packed into boxes for 4,000 retailers, in every day, out every day. Now we have endless shelving! It’s tricky for staff working with packing lists with 65 different issues rather than the one. It’s an investment in equipment, an ongoing process but still a mainly manual one. 

All under one roof and ready to ship!

Bo: You have a great site–functional, easy to use, one-click purchase; it’s a brilliant setup. 

David: Thank you Bo! I’m really all about function over form; but we want to make sure the process is as smooth as possible. Of course there are always improvements to make to the website but we tend to place more importance on the service that the image, there’s always work to be done in either direction. 

Samir: How did your business change with the pandemic? 

David: It’s had its plusses and minuses. The pandemic initially strengthened our sales, which were spiked to two to three times greater year over year. At the same time, it led to other companies, both at home and abroad, focusing on online, so we needed to work harder to maintain our share of market. On the other hand, more people also have discovered they can buy single print copies online. Internally, there are all the challenges of keeping the people on site (in the warehouse) happy, as well as helping others to transition to working from home. It’s not easy and I am keen to get everyone back into the office soon. General anxiety in the population reflects in how people interact with customer service; in our case, emails into customer service went up 400% and not all of them were pleasant. 

Sherin: We’ve all had to up our game. Amazon set the standard for delivery. Publishers need to learn to keep up with that. We have to turn everything around in a day or two. The pandemic has taught us to be faster, smarter leaner and deliver to our customers so they keep coming back. 

David: You’re right about that; we went big on getting copies to the customer tomorrow. The rest of the industry was still going with 10-12 weeks. You can get a refrigerator tomorrow but have to wait 3 months for a magazine; it doesn’t make sense. We’ve been busy changing that. Joe: What are you seeing in terms of new launches? 

David: Quite a lot in the indie market, with what feels like weekly launches. Literature titles are very popular. 

Gemma: I launched a book magazine, Oh! Reader, in 2020. 

Joe: The phrase “crazy brave” comes to mind. 

David: Great! Crafts are also popular; we sell a lot of UK craft magazines in the US and a lot of US craft magazines here. 

Gemma: In the US it’s very difficult to sell single copies online. 

David: We do work with some US publishers, and also export publications to the US. 

Sherin: shipping to every country has different rules. You have to work back from on sale because it takes different lengths of time for each country. Copies are stickered. You have to learn about each individual country. And the cost of shipping is very high. 

Pandemic Publishing Roundtable – from top left: Samir Husni, Joe Berger, Bo Sacks, David Atkins, Linda Ruth, Gemma Peckham, Sherin Pierce.

David: Print-on-demand might help with that at some point. It would be good to hear from US publishers keen to experiment with UK distribution via POD. 

Samir: the day will come when we will print on demand at home. 

David: We are about to launch a POD printer. I’m very excited about it. We’ll be able to go to publishers and distribute their publication without the shipping costs and delays. We’ll have more to say in a few weeks, when we’re up and running with it. It’s still going to be expensive for now. Joe: Now. Five years from now, maybe not. 

Samir: Fifteen years ago I spend $10,000 on a laser printer. Today they sell for $49. 

David: We’re starting with the saddle stitched titles. The high quality perfect bound magazines will come later. 

Bo: The quality of POD printers can be outstanding. 

Sherin: Having online points of distribution has got to be good. It’s something we’d like to see grow with the Almanac. 

Joe: If the publisher is being paid. I see publications on Amazon that appear to be coming out of someone’s return room and being sold on Amazon stores with no remuneration to the publisher. There are a couple of online newsstands here but they don’t seem to have much traction. I feel the best people to set up effective online magazine sales would be the wholesalers. They have the warehouses; they have the magazines. What they don’t seem to have as yet is the technology. 

David: We’d like to be involved with that (not Amazon) – we’re involved in a few conversations in various locations. Crucially, we have software that can maintain the product. Bo called that out; but in many cases, the importance of effective software is vastly underestimated in this industry. 

Bo: It was the first thing I noticed about your site.

Samir: The US postal service is undependable, and worsened by pandemic; this is a factor that makes selling online single copies difficult. And postage rates are unbelievable. 

David: In the UK as well; it’s shocking how many copies were lost in the mail during the worst of the pandemic here; and since we replace copies no question for all our customers and publisher partners, it’s cost us a good bit this last year. 

Samir: We did a study and found that people buying mags on the newsstand really just the one or two issues. They don’t want the others, even if the entire year is offered at the same price. 

David: Yes precisely, we’ve tried to upsell single copies to lower-priced subs, but it hasn’t happened. People are less interested in moving over. They want next day delivery of the magazine they want and the issue they want. Many people just don’t want to commit to a subscription. They don’t want any commitment whatsoever. It’s a wholly different group than the subscribers. 

Joe: What do you see in the coming years? 

David: We’d like to work with international wholesalers to help them launch their online businesses; we want to move into becoming an industry knowledge and information base as we have more experience than anyone in what we do.  And we want to keep doing what we’re doing, trying to improve, and getting as many magazines out as we can. We’re also getting ready to shout about it a bit more – we’re not very good at that so watch this space.

We Have Always Been at War with East Asia…And the Newsstand Has Always Been, Um, Challenging?

If I had made an entry in my diary every time someone told me in all seriousness that the single copy sales business was: Terrible, horrible, corrupt, inefficient, outdated, out of touch, wasteful, mobbed up, operated like the mafia, doomed, too busy ripping off publishers, retailers, wholesalers, consumers – to do a good job, that we should all be in jail for taking advantage of publishers…

… Then I would have a memoir considerably larger than a Brandon Sanderson novel.

Oathbringer-628rev-1-e1505943721525
That’s a mighty big book! (Source: BrandonSanderson.com

 

Nothing New Under the Sun

There is a verse in Ecclesiastes that says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” King Solomon wasn’t being a cranky old cynic when he wrote this. He was talking about the cycles of nature in life, not the rat race of the 21stcentury world. But while the complaints about the newsstand business are often the same year after year, the simple truth is that today’s newsstand sales business is not your fathers’ newsstand business. Or mine. And my father was in the newsstand business.

Last month industry guru and prophet Bo Sacks released two opinion pieces in his newsletter. One from former Ziff-Davis circulator Baird Davis and another from former consultant and industry leader John Harrington. Take a moment and check them out.

Both articles point out things that are very clear about the newsstand:

  • Sales are down dramatically
  • Sales for leading AAM audited titles are down even more
  • Retailers are cutting back on available space at the newsstand
  • There is continued consolidation at retail, wholesale and national distributor levels

I worked for Baird when I consulted for Ziff-Davis in its earlier print life. He is a good person and not someone I think of as gloomy or full of doom. In fact, I remember him as hard working and rather clear eyed. He succinctly points out the tremendous losses we have seen at the newsstand, especially with larger AAM audited titles. There is no denying the fact that a business that was generating about $5 billion in retail sales before the big crash in 2008 is now generating less than $2 billion. Harrington, who is also on the list of good people, is the former president of the Council for Periodical Distributors of America and a retired consultant. He points out that different participants in newsstand distribution have very different goals when it comes to profitability.

But We Knew This Already, Didn’t We?

Are industry leaders going to get together and “solve” the problem of the newsstand? Probably not because there are still too many competitors vying for space on the publishing side*. Moreover, all publishers, small, medium and large have a lot of other things to focus their attention on these days. Finally, it doesn’t seem like anything will happen without the seal of approval from the major wholesaler, TNG, or the largest national distributor, CoMag.

Captain Optimist Arrives

Earlier this week, fellow consultant John Morthanos tossed a bit of fuel on the fire in an opinion piece in response to Baird’s op-ed on Bo Sacks.  John makes the case that we should look beyond AAM numbers (I heartily agree). He cites the remarkable change in title rankings at chains like Barnes & Noble and Books A Million where traditional top ranked AAM audited titles (Think Cosmopolitan or House and Garden) have been supplanted with recent launches like Magnolia Journal.

He’s right. And as someone who is addicted to publishing stats, I’m endlessly fascinated by the report. But is that the point?

Single copy sales, the sales of print magazines at retail are down. Dramatically.

And,

Retail and wholesale consolidation has reduced a publisher’s ability to be profitable at the newsstand.

And,

If a segment of your business is not as profitable as it once was, and there is little chance of it returning to the same level of profitability, you tend to cut back your participation level and focus your attention on the parts of your business where you see opportunity.

It’s true that new titles continue to be launched on the newsstand. Some, like Magnolia Journal, Pioneer Woman, and the Centennial Media SIPs sell incredibly well. However, they don’t make up for the tremendous losses we see from former market leaders. How often can we rely on high level brand awareness to create winners at the newsstand?

New Industry Leaders

Let’s be realistic. Chains like Barnes & Noble and Books A Million are walled gardens. Their customers are actively looking for something to read – something in print. The B&N newsstand is well run and managed by a terrific magazine oriented staff. So is Books A Million. But that doesn’t mean we ignore the troubling signs that chains like Barnes & Noble have publicly experienced over the past few years.

Captain Skeptical?

It would be nice to think that every time a retailer chops a mainline in half or cuts 15 pockets from a check out that our wholesalers, national distributors and publisher quarterbacks rush in with the latest study from MBR and walk out with even more space. Half of it allocated to new, up and coming indie titles.

Maybe that does happen, sometimes. There are a lot of great people in our business and they do work hard to promote the category and maintain our space and viability.

But facts are facts and we’ve lost space. Despite some very visible, exciting and promising bright spots, sales are down overall.

From where I stand (I have a standing desk these days), these battles will continue to be hard-fought. We will never get away from the fact that store traffic is down. We have to acknowledge that there are a lot of distractions fighting for the public’s attention and money these days. Those of us who work in newsstand have to fight even harder to get the attention of the managers of magazine companies and the affiliated partners in the distribution chain because we are now a part of the magazine “media” business.

So, what to do? That’s easy.

Work hard. Vie for attention. Create your own promotions. Check your data. Prove your worth. Cooperate with others in the distribution chain.

Can you be both an optimist and a skeptic?

Yep.

*I am very much in favor of competition. Just in case you were wondering.

Hey Millennials, We Could Be Allies

“I have to say, “the red faced teacher said, “You kids are the worst.”

It was the late ‘70’s. I was sitting in what was once upon a time the coat room for an old and dilapidated class room. For us seniors, however, it was a place of grace: The high school newspaper office. Newspaper staffers had our study hall assigned to the newspaper office. Our advisor, the head of the English department and his best friend usually joined us for informal coffee clatches. Where our advisor was thoughtful and scholarly, his friend, a blustery history teacher, had a perpetually bleak outlook on the world in general and our fading New England city in particular,

His riff on why we were so terrible usually went something like this:

“You kids have it so easy. You don’t know how good you have it. I wish I were my own kid. The way you kids get everything you ever wanted. We had to work, you know. Work! You kids, with your hair and your music and now this disco. Disco! I can’t even look at you kids when I teach anymore. And your cars! They’re awful. You’ve got no respect. You don’t know what it is to work for what you want.”

Sound familiar?

He wasn’t the only one who talked about us like this. I heard it occasionally from my parents and from their friends too.

I bring this up because a few years back we started to see articles that said the “Millennial” generation, the children of Baby Boomers were the worst. According to all of these articles Millennials are lazy, entitled, poorly educated, borderline sociopathic, narcissistic. In other words, they are the worst. Ever.

Some of this conversation was kicked off in 2013 by Time Magazine columnist Joel Stein with a cover story titled, The Me Me Me Generation. After re-reading this article, I still can’t entirely decide if Stein was being tongue in cheek about the whole thing or deadly serious. Or maybe he’s just not that good of a writer (He is from Gen X).

 

Time Mag 52813 Millennial me
That is a really good selfie!

Just Another Way To Divide Ourselves

In these divided times, we’ve gone ahead and divided our generations and given them pithy labels:

There’s the aptly labeled “Greatest Generation”, the one that survived the depression and then won World War II . They were born between 1901 – 1924.*

They were followed by the “Silent Generation”. Silent, I imagine, because they grew up in the Depression era and the War era and were too busy to speak up.

Baby Boomers are so named because they were born after the War during the “Boom” years in America: 1945 – 1964.

They were followed by Madonna’s people, Generation X (or the Baby Bust) from 1965 – 1979.

And then the generation we all talk about, Millennials (or Gen Y), who were born at the dawn of the personal computing era and came of age during the early web years: 1980 -1995.

And the kids born after Millennials? They’re called Generation Z. There is no letter after Z so do we stop with the labeling? Does the zombie apocalypse come next?

Unknown
Apres moi, le deluge.

I work in retail marketing and I understand the need to divide and label every  measurable thing. Still, these generational labels leave me cold.

Boomer, But Not A Boomer

As a certified “Boomer”, I’m supposed to have fond memories of Elvis and Davey Crockett on black and white TVs. But my other cultural symbols are of Civil Rights, Women’s Lib, Flower Power, hippies and the Beatles. I was supposed to have protested the Vietnam War, tuned in, dropped out and dropped acid. But I’m a “young” boomer. I wasn’t born in the late 40’s or ‘50’s so I don’t really care about Elvis or “I Love Lucy”. I have little to no memory of most of these other cultural touchstones.

fesshead
Nope. Didn’t watch this.

I was a small child during the 1960’s. I sort of remember the election of 1968 and the Kennedy and King assassinations. But maybe I just read about it in class. I fell asleep waiting for the moon landing in 1969. I went to Junior High and High School during the 1970’s. I remember Nixon and gas lines and Ford and Carter and really weird clothes. But aren’t those the supposed early cultural touchstones for Gen X? The ‘50’s and ‘60’s that define our “generation” are memories only because I’ve read about them or seen them on TV.

1960s-Hippies-Fashion-300x261
I wouldn’t have noticed them unless they had Matchbox cars.

Former Obama White House staffer and current podcast host, Jon Lovett stirred the intergenerational waters a few weeks ago on his Podcast “Lovett Or Leave It” by declaring that Baby Boomers are “the worst” generation ever and that their cultural legacy is “garbage.”

Would he have gotten along well with my newspaper advisor’s best friend?

-Dude, really? Buffet? If this were a sincere apology you would have played a little Springsteen.-

Personally, I don’t like piling on Millennials. They’ve been criticized for growing up in the era of participation trophies. But I was a soccer coach who handed out these trophies and I’m here to tell you that kids, at least the Millennial ones I coached, had excellent BS detectors. They wanted the trophies because kids – from all generations – like to collect things. A few of the children I coached were on the field because they really liked playing soccer. Some were there because their parents signed them up without asking them if they wanted to play (They didn’t). Most of them were there to collect the uniforms, trophies and get inappropriate snacks. They knew whether or not they had done a “Good job!” out there on the field and didn’t really want to hear those two words.

soccer-womens-trophy
They were on the field for these.

It’s Pretty Much The Same For Every Generation

In my role as a consultant I now work with more Millennial and Gen X account supervisors, managers, account executives, sales representatives and even executives than with people from my generation. For the most part I like almost everyone I encounter. My MO is try to make any situation that I encounter work. I try to remind people that we have clients to keep profitable and relationships to maintain. Period.

I spite of what the press says, there is little difference between the way I and my colleagues acted when we were in our 20’s and 30’s and the way today’s younger generation behaves. The differences that I encounter are more technological than anything else.

I recall a supervisor telling me to not be so advancement oriented. “Gotta walk before you can run,” he often said.** “You’re not entitled to that until you can show me what you can do,” another told me whenever I asked to be put on new projects.

In other blog posts, I’ve mentioned the grand old timers in some Rep Rooms I worked in who were not thrilled with women entering the business. Or mainframe computers. Or in store merchandising. They didn’t think we kids knew very much about how our business worked. They were right. We didn’t. Fortunately, some of them got over their resentment and taught us.

In other words, we weren’t the worst. And neither are Millennials.

*For the record, the Greatest Generation raised Baby Boomers and Boomers raised Millennials so in the end, this whole debate has always seemed very circular to me.

**This same supervisor later sent me on a trip to Montana in November. It snowed, I barely made it home. I think he was trying to teach me something.