Things Placed (Yet Again) In Front Of The Magazine Rack

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.

But….

Wisconsin1
Got milk. But got no magazines!

And then there was this:

Wisconsin 3
No whining just because you can’t get to your favorite magazine now…

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.

Jewel1
Go Cubs Go!

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.

 

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A Bounty of Book A Zines

We’ve seen numerous reports of the remarkable growth of the Book A Zine category since the beginning of this no longer new decade. Most of the reports marvel at the tremendous elasticity of the category, the unit sales growth and the wide variety of titles that publishers are pumping out.

But unless you really go and look at a magazine rack today, you wouldn’t really see and feel the impact of what this “new” category is doing to the rack.* Oh you can talk about it and read all about it, but until you really go and look and see, you might not understand it.

As our former Secretary of Defense and eloquent wordsmith Donald Rumsfeld once said:

When there were more wholesalers to visit, distributions to work and territories to see, I always made it a point to spend a few hours at retail. Unlike some of the traveling pooh-bahs of the time, my goal wasn’t to find an issue to use as a cudgel on the local rep. I really wanted to see and know the town. It was the only way I felt that I could know, understand and own what I was working on. The only way to know what I knew and know that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

If you know what I mean. Because otherwise it was just a bunch of numbers.

We don’t have that today. When was the last time someone other than the local merchandiser was in the Martin’s on Route 20 in South Bend, IN?

The other day I spent some time getting acquainted with a new supermarket in the wake of my neighborhood store closing. While I still go out to retail, these days I’m usually just looking for one or two client titles. It was good to really stop, look, absorb, and spend time at the rack. It’s a great way to learn a store.

And look how these “zines” have taken over the rack:

Who said "General Interest" is dead?
Who said “General Interest” is dead?
Cooking, cowboys...and ice fishing? Well, it is January, this is the Midwest.
Cooking, cowboys…and ice fishing? Well, it is January, this is the Midwest.
Maybe there was nowhere else to drop the bridal mag?
Maybe there was nowhere else to drop the bridal mag?

While this part of the market is doing well, they can strain the distribution chain. If the store is part of chain that has “SBT” (Scan Based Trading), then the wholesaler owns that merchandise. These are annuals. Those are high cover prices and a long on sale. That’s a lot of inventory to own.

There are fewer turns on the rack unless the publisher is pumping out a bunch of ‘Zines. And while some publishers are (cough, cough) pumping out a ton of ‘zines, it’s not enough to replace the lost sales we see in the higher volume categories.

Lastly, not all magazine categories are naturals for these “Zines.” And, more importantly, there are some economic issues to be concerned with. Without some existing clout behind you, a brand that is well established and has a significant newsstand presence, these aren’t that cheap to produce nor are they that cheap to launch in the blind.

In the comments section of Dead Tree Edition’s post about Book A Zines, industry guru Bo Sacks wondered if we would get too greedy and kill the category. I’m inclined to think not. Unlike a regular frequency title, you don’t repeat a special edition if it doesn’t work. It’s just too costly. Unlike a monthly, you’re not going to leave it on life support because there’s no ad or subscriber revenue to prop it up.

Where will the category go? I don’t know. But it was nice to stop and look, really look at the rack.

*For the record, back in the day, we called them annuals or SIPS. There just weren’t as many of them, and they didn’t have good press.

Join, Or Die

Editor’s Note: Over the holiday break, I spent a few millennia sitting on a plane reading articles about the Tea Party and looking at photos of some of their paraphernalia. While you don’t want my opinion about the current state of their union, the images they used, especially the “Join, Or Die” flag, got me contemplating Walter Issacson’s excellent biography, “Benjamin Franklin-An American Life”. Somehow, that led me to this image which  I offer  to you readers.

Illustration by ELB
Illustration by E. Berger

There are enough writers now who scoff at the notion of print magazines going the way of the dinosaur that we can drop the whole “going the way of the dinosaur” or “buggy whip” analogy.  In any event, while there are no dinosaurs around these days, they are a pretty big business. And, while there aren’t too many horse drawn carriages rolling around major American cities, there are still buggy whip manufacturers.

The current state of the newsstand distribution business is an altogether different nest of dinosaur eggs.

In theory, the consolidation of the newsstand distribution business should have been a good thing for everyone. For publishers, piecing together a print order became much simpler because there are fewer wholesalers of wildly varying sizes and fewer people with wildly different agendas to negotiate with.

For wholesalers, the elimination of some nearby competitors and the consolidation of their presence in key regions should have made life easier. It also provided a chance to create firmer relationships with major national retailers. There was the possibility of breaking into new national markets.

Retailers were finally able to consolidate their service levels, streamline their invoicing and payments and bring magazine distribution up to levels comparable to their other DSD delivery agents.

Some of that happened and whether or not any of it is a good thing most likely depends on which side of the table you sit on. Are you a glass half full or half empty kind of person?

What more than fifteen years of consolidation has not done is streamlined how we measure success in our business. All the links in our distribution chain look at it differently.

For an SBT retailer, a 35% sell through should be meaningless because they only paid for what they sold and they never carried the other 65% on their books (Although the savvier ones should wonder what could have sold in the space where those returns came from).

For a publisher, a 35% sell through can mean a profit if their production costs were not too high. It can also be a break even point. Or it can be a loss. It all depends on those pesky printing and shipping costs. Plus whatever else the wholesalers, retailers and national distributors tack onto the final bill. Those add ons can add up.

For a national distributor, selling a magazine at 35% is pretty much the same as a national distributor that sells it at 55% or 15%. For them, the only difference in many cases (Unless the contract is creative and has efficiency tied in) is the volume of sales. A publisher client with a 15% sell through is either on the way out of business, or about to get a lot of hand holding if they still have a stack of cash and the will to fix what is wrong. Hand holding a publisher can be expensive. On the other hand, a lot of hand holding for a +50% client at least means there’s money coming in, and the potential for more.

But in the end, what about the reader? After all, our goal here, in this little brackish, increasingly shallow tidal pool of the publishing industry is to sell as many copies of as many magazines as possible. Isn’t it?

Is the solution to meld the national distributors (ND’s) and wholesalers together? I’ve heard this idea kicked around. Ideally the goal of  the ND’s is to market and advocate for the publishers to the wholesaling and retailing community. If ND’s are not there, who advocates for the publisher? Wholesalers should be invested in the success of the products they market but it often seems as though it’s simpler for them to push a button and say “No” than to dig in and try to understand what is presented to them. To be fair, many on the publishing side still don’t really understand what is involved in wholesaling magazines.

And distributing magazines to the newsstand, in spite of all of the technological advances we’ve seen over the last twenty years is still very labor intensive. We don’t see as much local knowledge of the stores and markets serviced as we should expect.

There’s no denying that readers have not been picking up newsstand copies in the quantities that they used to. Sales have been declining for many years. We’ve seen some positive trends like the successful launches of HGTV Magazine and Food Network Magazine. There’s great news on the specialty front as Book A Zines and specials bring in high cover prices and high sales. Mr. Magazine ™, Samir Husni counted 242 regular frequency magazine launches in 2012.

At the same time, we have seen the declines in traditionally strong categories as well as the near elimination of some categories that were traditionally industry leaders in the last two decades. These declines wipe out the gains that have been hard won.

Maybe we’ve lost our way. In all of our obsessing over consolidating, efficiency, will we or won’t we survive, we’ve forgotten that this is a hand sell, one at a time, get the people into the stores kind of business. There don’t seem to be any short cuts to achieve that end. There are a lot of great tools these days that should make our job more efficient. But we still have to get readers to find the rack, stop in front of the rack,  pick up a magazine and then make the decision to buy the magazine. We know people like magazines, we just have to get them to buy them.

Things Placed in Front Of The Magazine Rack: Part 4 of…

For those of you who are paying attention, the correct title for this post should actually be “Things Placed in the Book A Zine Pocket”. But let’s not quibble.

This submission is from Mark White, the head of Specialty Marketing at US News and World Report.

On the plus side, texting and college goes together like chocolate and peanut butter.

Over the years, I’ve come across everything from empty candy wrappers to unopened cans of pop and discarded prepackaged seedless grapes in the mainline pockets. So while not shocking, this find certainly is amusing.

Don’t forget to keep sending in your photos of “Things Placed in Front of The Magazine Rack.” And while you’re at it, please follow this link to printbuyersinternational.com and check out the recap of Mark’s presentation at the Publishing Business Conference and Expo in New York last month where he discussed how US News broke the “11 Unwritten Rules” of Book A Zine publishing. It’s well worth the side trip.

Who knew our industry was so big on oral tradition?

Things Placed In Front of The Magazine Rack: Part 2 of…. (And One More Thing)

If I were a more fair minded person, I’d stop picking on this particular retailer. But this week, I was presented with a trifecta of bad. Perhaps even St. Thomas Aquinas would have had trouble holding back.

Hope you weren't counting on selling anything out of that tower.
Chocolate and magazines surely go together. But is this the best way?
Seriously? A buyer spent corporate money for green colored beach balls? And "they" write snarky editorials about the newsstand business?

I can be fair though. It’s my understanding that certain union rules keep the local wholesaler’s merchandiser from setting up the store. For those of us in the business who would then counter with, “Well, why doesn’t the route manager go in and work with the store merchandiser and manager”? Good question. My guess is that that has happened. Probably a few times.

In keeping with this week’s calendar, there’s only so much even St. Jude can do.

In other news:

I was hopeful last week that we were going to evade the latest round of ABC Audit reports with minimal breathless reporting on the certain demise of newsstand industry. Clearly, I had been spending too much time on the port side of the foredeck admiring the waves.

Audience Development Magazine published a column from former Ziff Davis VP of Circulation, Baird Davis that suggests that “the newsstand is nearing endangered species status”!

Still? Aren’t we dead yet?

Of course, this was picked up and distributed by Bo Sacks.

Davis does point out many disturbing trends in the latest round of ABC numbers. And it is helpful to have that staring at you in black and white. But for those of us who work on the front lines, it’s nothing new. We already knew, and the people we report to already know, and the people we work with in all avenues and all channels of the marketplace are aware.

Which doesn’t mean he shouldn’t or can’t report on what he reports on. It’s just that there’s little here that is new or helpful.

Like many people who have reported on it, Davis suggests that the recent purchase of Comag, the formerly joint national distribution venture of Hearst and Conde Nast by national magazine wholesaler, The News Group could be a positive thing. He and others have suggested that it may bridge the divides in our business and lead to better channel cooperation. Maybe between News Group and Comag. But I have yet to hear a serious explanation of how this will solve our industry problems.

Publisher’s consultant Linda Ruth, also an Audience Development Magazine columnist makes a more interesting and perhaps correct assertion that “on one level we have a massive paradigm shift here, on another it’s business as usual.”

The article wraps up with a call to our industry leaders, especially the largest publishers such as Conde Nast, Hearst, Time/Warner and others, to work together to solve the “dangerously viral” condition of the newsstand industry.

OK. How?

I must confess that I often make this clarion call myself. While I am alone in my office. With the dog out of earshot. And then I come to a “Full Stop”.

How do we get the major circulation directors of the major publishers into a room to decide the fate of a  multi billion dollar industry? Moreover, do they have the right to determine the fate for all of the participants in that industry? Can I be assured that the end result will be fair to the smaller, frequently still profitable players in the business?

“Full Stop”

On the other hand, please remove your chocolate bunny dump bin from Aisle 3. Thank you. Oh, and take those green beach balls with you too.

The Backwoodsman Magazine: A Tale of Single Copy Success

Editor’s Note: An earlier draft of this post incorrectly stated that the single copy sales of The Backswoodsman had climbed from below 40,000 copies to 150,000 copies. The post should have stated that the distribution of the magazine had climbed from below 40,000 copies to 150,000 copies. That has been corrected below. My apologies for the error.

If you’re deep into mainstream New York based slick glossy magazines, there’s not much for you here in The Backwoodsman Magazine. That is, unless you happen to have a life that’s lived in the outdoors. Perhaps you wish to live off the grid, be self sufficient and you want to know how to build a “Zeer Pot Refrigerator”. Or maybe you need to replace the gunwales on your canoe and you think you need to take a refresher course in winter driving.

This thirty-two year old magazine is ably owned and edited by the Richie family of Texas. Compared to the latest Conde glossy, it is anything but cutting edge. In fact until six months ago, the insides of this title were printed on newsprint. The cover images are taken from outdoors art. They feature hunters, fishermen, trappers, Native Americans and scenes from the Old West. While the website is functional, the content is limited. However the e-commerce store is well stocked and easy to use. There are no apps. There is no digital subscription.

The Jan/Feb 2012 Cover of “The Backwoodsman” It’s more mainstream than you think.

Most of the articles we see about print magazine circulation are about how sales are down on the newsstand and sub sides. Print is dead. No one wants to shop at bricks and mortar retail. The only place where most writers (and frankly most of the numbers) will grudgingly concede some sort of growth is in the Book-A-Zine category (aka the Zombies).

But here’s a contradiction to that trend. Seven years ago, this magazine, The Backwoodsman, was distributing less than 40,000 copies onto the newsstand. Nothing very big. The only  saving grace for the title was it’s sell through in the mid forties. It was a candidate for the slow erosion and decline on the newsstand that we’ve seen for many other independently owned, middle of the pack publishers suffer through.

But the exact opposite has happened to this title. This magazine has seen it’s newsstand distribution slowly climb from that sub 40,000 mark to 150,000 copies. All the while, it’s single copy sales efficiency has averaged 45% or better. Sales are up significantly.

How did that happen?

One answer is that the content in this magazine is something that people want. More and more people do want to be outdoors. Either read about it vicariously, or actually live self sufficiently. Many of the articles are written by the readers and it’s easy to see how intimate the magazine is with it’s audience.

However in today’s newsstand world, a hot topic is not necessarily a recipe for growth. It also takes persistance.

Newsstand circulation is handled by Irwin Krimke, a consultant and veteran of the Kable News book division and former national distributor ADS Publishing Services. When he began working with the title, about a quarter of the wholesale marketplace was not drawing the magazine and the former Anderson News had placed it on a highly restricted distribution.

It’s very possible to look at much of today’s newsstand business and think of it like many other “push button” businesses. Communication is mostly through email. People hide behind voice mail walls. Distributions are worked through MagNet or a national distributor’s equivalent and submitted electronically. For most main stream titles, the ID wholesale market may be less than 5% of your overall sales.

In this case, Irwin has steadily worked the the title’s distribution and pushed it’s national distributor, Kable Media to go after increasingly important chain authorizations. It took a long time, many submissions, and the retailers are now responding. Krimke works the wholesalers personally and has expanded the ID market. Retailers and wholesalers are paying attention to this $4.95 publication.

Two simple lessons come to mind when considering this story:

  • Good content needs good editing. We hear the words “content” and “curation” tossed around like so many pennies these days. This publisher shows us that you need to know your readers, deliver articles they want to read in a format that the readers want to read them in. In this case ink on paper seems to do just fine. For others it will be digital. Figure it out. Deliver it.
  • Work your circulation. Know your circulation. Don’t ignore your circulation. It doesn’t matter if it’s print or digital. It doesn’t matter if it’s in house or outsourced. Rule #2 in magazine survival is: “If you don’t understand your circulation, you will perish.”

This publisher has his finger on the pulse of his readers. He’s delivering words they want to read and his audience has responded by growing. He has people on staff who pay attention to the circulation and he listens to them. You can grow on the newsstand. You just need to understand it, work it, follow-up on it, and keep working it.

In my first real publishing job many years ago at Outside Magazine, the subscription director, Anne Mollo-Christensen, lead off a staff meeting once by describing her responsibilities like this: “We test,” she said, “Then we measure, test again, measure, try something new, measure, and test again. We’re always looking for a new way to get to a reader. We never stop trying.”

That was perhaps the best lesson I ever had in circulation and marketing. The Backwoodsman lives it every day.

Anybody else out there have a circulation success story they want to share?