by Karlene Lukovitz
Editor, MBR Daily Publishing & Retail News
Behind the drumbeat of relentlessly negative press references to magazine newsstand trends, the special interest publications (SIP)/bookazine segment is thriving, and channel partners are aggressively moving to forge innovative, productive partnerships with retailers to address challenges and opportunities on both sides.
Those were among the main takeaways from several leading industry executives on a retail opportunities panel during the 2018 MBR Conference.
Channel Partners Teaming for Summits With Retailers
The executives reported on cooperative outreach efforts to retailers, inspired and supported by the industry’s new “What If We Leveraged Everything Magazines and Books Have to Offer?” initiative and presentation template.
Jay Felts, president of national distributor Comag Marketing Group (CMG), reported that several publishers and ND's have gone together to have “summits” with key retailers in the past few months, and that there have been a growing number of other retailer meetings over the past 12 to 18 months, as well.
Because of the magazine category’s sales challenges, “When you walk into a retailer now, you’ve got their attention — particularly if you’re talking outside of the box,” he observed. “Receptivity is 100%. And they’ve been pleasantly surprised that we’re not there primarily to fight over checkout positions — although,” he smiled, “we might get to that at the end. Instead, we start by talking about the bigger picture and how we can help them take advantage of the assets that publishers bring to the party. And that’s been a home run everywhere.”
The summits with retailers have been “the most refreshing days of the year for me…they have opened up new doors,” Felts continued. He described one as being a “tough love” experience. The retailer drove home that the magazine category “can no longer feel entitled to checkout space — it has to earn it every single week, because the pressures at retail are immense”... magazines “can’t just keep doing the same things at checkout and think we’ll keep that display.”
Innovation: Craved by Retailers, Survival Key for Publishers
At the same time, even traditional supermarket retailers are indicating a willingness “to test everything,” Felts said. For instance, he said, while acknowledging that there are obstacles to magazines being featured in “click and collect” (order online, pick up at store) promotions, one retailer urged: 'Let’s forget about why we can’t do it, and figure out what we can do.'
“So many things are doable," Felts continued. "And what we’ve seen in the last eight to 10 weeks from publishers [in terms of support for new initiatives] has been phenomenal. That's not just because we’re going to sell [more] copies, but also because they’re enthused that we’re getting the message out to the retail community that print at retail is alive and well…and that, by the way, print can also include mobile and social and click-and-collect and sharing e-commerce and website information, and other benefits for retailers. Our intent now is to roll out [implementing concepts from] these retailer summits one by one.”
“As someone who lives in the trenches, I’m very encouraged by what I’ve heard [at the MBR Conference] — strong support from retailers who ‘get’ our category and what we’re up against,” said Dave Parry, president and CEO of wholesaler TNG. “Of course, that’s not always the case. Retailers are going through complete transformation now… they’re scrambling, and like all categories, we're caught up in this transformation.
“The days of convention are over at retail,” Parry stressed. “We’re not going to be able to say, ‘We should have this space because we’ve been there in the past.’ And it’s not just about periodicals; it’s about [retailers wanting] creativity across the entire [store]… We must think about the business unconventionally. While we’re still thinking about getting the product into the store and selling it, retailers are thinking about creating experiences and driving continuous interaction and digital purchases with their shoppers."
Innovative thinking and initiatives will become ever more crucial, particularly as scan-to-pay technology begins to reduce checkouts, Parry pointed out. For example, magazines may eventually need to segment their display strategy by department, according to synergistic editorial content. Meanwhile, right now, display opportunities may be opening up for appropriate magazines in “stores within stores,” like Ace Hardwares now being opened in some Giant Eagle stores. [Later this week, look for MBR Daily's coverage of Miller Zell’s presentation at the conference, for more on store-within-store opportunities.]
Changing the Narrative; Offering Retailer-Specific Solutions
Another major opportunity is “changing the narrative,” emphasized Drew Wintemberg, president and CEO of Time Inc. Retail, a Meredith division. “That takes getting to as many executives as we can across the retail industry and conveying the strengths of the category, not just pitching one publisher or magazine.”
In addition, newsstand executives need to reach out to and better inform the press — including success stories — so that the channel can get some genuinely deserved positive coverage, argued Wintemberg. “SIPs' success is not getting anywhere near the attention it should," he said. "All we hear is about declining newsstand sales, yet SIP growth is phenomenal. One big problem is that AAM (Alliance of Audited Media) doesn’t count any SIP sales.”
Wintemberg also emphasized the need for publishers to work with retailers “to understand their specific issues and needs — like creating an engaging in-store experience, or differentiating themselves — and help them address these. We’re good at coordinating and planning with the terminal and bookstore classes of trade, but we need to expand that and roadmap with a wider cross-section of retailers. We need to tap into what the specific retailers are doing and also bring them ideas.”
In addition, publishers should better leverage their in-house assets, including social media, video and email promotions, to enhance newsstand performance, he said. “We need to harness the power that we have in our own shops the same way that we do that for advertisers. We don’t create communities around our own brands... We need to get people internally, who are more used to focusing on advertisers, to think about [the newsstand channel's consumer-driven revenue] and extending those resources to retail.”
Magazines have major advantages over other categories, starting with extremely varied, trusted and inspiring content that can help retailers differentiate themselves, he stressed.
Further, magazine and book content lends itself readily to customized initiatives for retailers, Wintemberg and others pointed out. Publications have the unique ability to create products that home in on whatever topic a retailer may wish to focus, such as beauty, health care, specific food categories, or home improvement, Wintemberg and others pointed out.
Parry referenced a Selena tribute SIP created recently for H-E-B as one extremely successful example of custom retailer content. He also mentioned a custom, toy-branded bookazine in the concept stage that would be displayed in-aisle, within a specific retail chain, in front of the brand's toys. The SIP would also feature a value-added, cover-mounted toy.
Books Have Similar Array of Assets, Tools
Tom Cox, VP, mass merchandise and distributor sales, Penguin Random House, reported that retailers increasingly are asking book publishers for exclusive content — particularly in nonfiction — to help differentiate themselves from competitors.
While that doesn’t fit with the age-old print publications model of printing in volume and distributing en masse, “it’s important, and all publishers are doing some customization,” Cox said. “I think most of the time we do it not because we’re going to sell 10% or 20% more copies, but because it’s meaningful to the retailer to be able to say, 'We have something that’s a little different.' But we also need to strive to [make sure that it's] a meaningful exclusive."
Cox also said that publishers — and many authors — are doing excellent jobs of building their platforms and targeting audiences via social media. “The next level is doing something retailer-specific with a platform,” he said, citing the example of a competitive publisher that created retailer-specific Instagram videos to promote a Joanna Gaines book in Target. The effort gave an extra boost to sales, which hit 90,000 copies in Target within two weeks, he noted.
However, Cox said, “I still think that authors are under-utilized.” Publishers can do more to help retailers by offering them access to top authors for selective consumer-facing events and promotions, he said.
Going On the Offensive
“There are two big areas of challenge” in the newsstand channel, summed up Felts. “One is cost pressures within the supply chain; the other is finding a way to drive consumer consumption. But if we fail to make positive progress on the second, the first really doesn’t matter.
“We have plenty of tools to drive consumption and activate consumers around our category," he said. "[But] to win this war — the toughest battle we’ve ever seen for display space — we’ve got to speak up, step forward and go forward to retailers with one voice… Let’s go out there with a positive narrative. And let’s go on the offensive, not feel that we have to apologize for our business. Let’s put the other categories we compete with on the defensive.”
“The message the retailers have delivered to us in the summits is that we have to get our act together and demonstrate that we’re committed to retail,” added Wintemberg. “That’s the fundamental narrative behind ‘Leveraging Everything.’”
Parry said that “misinformation about our category” is easily the biggest challenge for magazines in the retail channel. “Every major CPG company is attacking our category, using misinformation” — particularly the untrue cliché that print is dead — to try to undermine retailers' perceptions and treatment of magazines and books, he said.
“The determination that we show in the next year is going to position our category for many years to come,” Parry concluded. “So let’s have the grit, the focus, the energy that we need to get this taken care of.”