Editor’s Note: Permanent music video for this series. See if you can guess the significance…
Here we go again. There’s been a lot of interest in the Chicago Cubs this year for obvious reasons. So much so that two publishers actually put out Chicago Cubs book-a-zines in the weeks leading up to the World Series.
It is not surprising that within hours of the Cubs winning their first World Series in 108 years, every brick and mortar store in Chicago and the collar counties put out giant racks of blue Cubs shirts, hats and every other sort of tchotchke and gizmo you can imagine.
And of course, a few other publishers got in on the game and put out their world series specials.
However at this particular retailer not only has the mainline rack been cut down in size and shunted from the retailers’ dead zone to the retailers’ even deader zone, but unsold Cubs merchandise got stuck in front of the mainline.
Our industry continues to launch a lot of new product. Most of what I’ve seen these days is better written, produced on better paper and offers better value even though the cover price is higher. Unfortunately, much of it is also niche and doesn’t come close to replacing the sales we’ve lost from general interest mass merchandise titles.
As a result, we can expect to continue to see smaller racks, and obscured racks.
There are admittedly many advantages to the way the newsstand sales business is organized these days. For example, if I have a decent wi-fi signal I can quickly find out exactly where my magazine is selling. And where it isn’t. With a few mouse clicks I can download sales history, competitive sales history, class of trade data, top performing stores and more. With a few more mouse clicks I can send off a note to a distributor or retailer and make a presentation about why my ranking should be changed or a certain issue is being promoted.
On the other hand, there are few compelling reasons outside of curiosity or a desire to travel, for me to get into a car or board an airplane and jet off to Louisville, KY (Once the home of a decent sized wholesaler) to see what the displays in that town look like.
So I was pretty thrilled a few weeks ago to get in my car and drive for a few hours to meet with a regional publishing client face to face. In fact I was so happy to get out of my oddly shaped office that the day before the appointment I did something I hadn’t done for years outside of my own home base: I set up a retail check-up route, left hours before the appointment and spent the morning checking stores.
The trip had some nostalgia to it because this town was once home to one of my favorite wholesalers. To be fair, the wholesalers who now manage the retailers in this town do a good job. Most displays were perfectly fine.
And then there was this:
And a few others I didn’t capture very well on camera. To be fair, most displays were perfectly fine. But the ones above are memorable and they occur far too frequently for comfort in an industry that is constantly under assault.
A few weeks ago, fellow consultant John Morthanos put up a post on Publishing Executive where he argued for expanding the title mix at checkout. He posited, correctly I think, that the checkout was dominated by seven publishers. Most of these titles had experienced significant circulation declines so wouldn’t it make sense to experiment? Try out new titles, new categories? Shouldn’t we make the checkout more, well, democratic and meritorious (my interpretation)? He went so far as to suggest, to the apparent horror of some of our colleagues, that one checkout in each store should be designated for these up and coming titles.
John is on to something. Without diving deep into the data, it’s probably fair to say that the crash of newsstand sales over the past seven years has come mostly from the checkout. The celebrity weeklies are the biggest culprits. The uptick we see in the sales of book a zines, adult coloring books, and niche titles like The Backwoodsman and so many regional city books, guns and survivalist titles can’t make up for the hundreds of thousands of lost units in weekly celebrity and women’s service magazines if these trending titles are relegated to the back row of a twelve-foot mainline.
There are opportunities opening up in some chains. Over the past few years, most Kroger owned banners have either re-racked their stores or opened them up to a program called “Pay to Stay”. For the record, that title, “Pay to Stay” is not nearly as ominous as it sounds. “Pay to Stay” or PTS for short, is a one-year checkout program where the retailer does not install new racks, but does ask all the titles on the rack to pay for a relogo program – or give up their space. Open pockets are then offered to other titles – often titles that are growing and ranked highly on the mainline.
The cost for this program is significantly less than a new rack program. In the last cycle, I was able to move a client who had a national publication and multiple regional titles into many markets where in the past we were relegated to the mainline and could only dream of putting the titles onto the checkout.
The program is managed by TNG’s RS2 division. It is interesting to note that the program is billed in quarterly increments and publishers can opt out if they give notice one quarter in advance. This was a huge plus in gaining the participation of my client. And no, they didn’t opt out.
Since then I have come across more programs like this. You don’t always get in. You don’t always get what you want. But it’s a small step in the right direction.
I am seeing more and more requests from retailers for publishers to be more active in promoting their titles on the newsstand and partnering with the retailers to promote their magazines in their stores. A recent letter from the Costco buying team comes to mind.
For my part, I have always encouraged the publishers I work with to announce the on-sale dates of their titles, feature their cover images and stories and promote the availability of the magazine in national and local retailers in their social media feeds and e-blasts. Why wouldn’t you try to make a sale?
Of course, we can and should do more. No matter how wonderful home delivery, drone delivery and and driverless cars may be and become, people are social animals. We need to interact. We like to get out of our homes from time to time. Anyone who works from a home office can tell you about that.
In the meantime, a recent tour of some local retailers over the July 4th weekend showed that we still have a long way to go.
While Whole Foods, has and always will get props from me for their unlogo’d checkouts, last weekend they popped a bunch of mobile carts in front of their checkouts. On the one hand, you can’t blame a retailer for wanting to boost impulse sales over a busy holiday weekend. But to me, it’s a chilling reminder of how tenuous our hold on the checkout is. It also makes you wonder why our industry didn’t approach them with an idea for the busy holiday weekend.
The local Jewel Supermarket was selling t-shirts at their checkouts.
As bricks and mortar retailers come under increasing pressure from on-line retailers and changing customer patterns, our industry would be wise to continue to reinvent how we do business. John happens to be right. We need to experiment more.
But we also need to make sure that there are fewer things in front of the magazine rack.
Nope. This post won’t address the Pay on Scan issue. Nor does it contain specific financial or production advice to the remaining three biggest wholesalers. There is no “10 Point Plan!” demonstrating how our four largest national distributors can remain relevant.
Are these the right steps to fix the business? My nose has been on the grindstone for much of the past four months and these thoughts are what smacked me upside the head yesterday afernoon after reflecting on what passed for a heavily revised and reviewed print order landed in my in-box.
Five Simple Steps To fix the Newsstand Industry:
1. All sales are local.
2. Sell local. Can you learn what sells in that store? If you can’t, why are you messing with that make order? If you don’t know, why are you servicing that store?
3. Promote the category. If publishers, national distributors and wholesalers can’t get together to promote our product, then who will? What reason are we giving readers to go out and “discover” our product?
4. Stop undercutting our own category with cheap subscriptions.
5. Stop whinging about digital. It’s here. Deal with it. Work with it. Learn it.
Upon further review, I’d add the following:
2a. Make the tools to discover what sells in that store readily available and CHEAP to acquire. Most publishers, mainline publishers at least, already give up 60% or more of their cover price to get to that store (Not including promotional dollars). They should be encouraged to understand their distribution and have input into how it is developed. After all, they know their readers. Their customers are the retailers customers.
2b. Make the tools that drive distribution more universal in nature and marketing driven. Everyone involved in distribution should be able, at a quick glance, to know rack size, number of checkouts, store demographics and store volume when they make a distribution decision.
Where’ve I been? Very busy. And there are about 12 transcripts sitting in the edit que waiting to be edited. But for a solo practioner who’s also trying to learn a new facet of the business one can either work or write blog postings. Blogging is important. But I have to admit that paying work and reasonably satisfied customers takes precedent. I hope to be back up to speed with more topics as we move towards the end of the year.
On a related front: I am intrigued with the hints we’ve received from media guru Bob Sacks and fellow consultant Luke Magerko. So far, they’ve revealed some pretty straightforward suggestions that daily practitioners like this writer and many of my colleagues attempt to practice. Hopefully there are more reveals that will hape this industry rethink, in a positive, sales growth oriented manner how we work.
Because who in their right mind wants to work in and manage a declining industry?