Boots’ decision last week to suspend publication of its paid-for customer magazine due to low circulation is the first blow for a contract magazine industry that has been booming for the past two years.
Since May last year 80 new contract magazines have launched, according to the Association of Publishing Agencies. The most high-profile of these have been retail titles.
The boom began with the launch of Sainsbury’s The Magazine in March 1993. It has been very successful. It emulates existing non-contract magazines in its quality and is given a premium checkout position by Sainsbury’s. In only one year it established sales of 325,000. Much to the delight of agency press buyers, it provided Audit Bureau of Circulations figures to prove it and joined the National Readership Survey.
The success of Sainsbury’s title gave impetus to the retail contract magazine sector. Magazines for Boots, Tesco, Safeway, Harvey Nichols and Iceland followed.
They all vary in their editorial and distribution, but the most similar to Sainsbury’s model is Boots’ The Magazine.
While Sainsbury’s title rivals cookery and practical magazines such as Family Circle and Essentials, Boots’ aims to exploit the retailer’s reputation by targeting the health and beauty sector. Both are priced at about 1 and are high quality, perfect-bound glossies.
But there they differed. Mike Potter, managing director of Redwood, which published Boots’ The Magazine, said at the magazine’s launch that he was looking for a title that could combine “high promotion of the store and high circulations”.
It had previously been thought that what a client gained from heavily promoting its values through contract magazines it lost out on in terms of circulation or “readability” compared with mainstream “independent” titles.
“To get the circulation levels of Sainsbury’s, Boots would have needed to have given it a fresher and more independent feel. Sainsbury’s manages to include all of its products in its recipes without becoming a propaganda tool for Sainsbury’s,” says Leo Burnett head of press Marie Oldham.
Helena Hudson, account manager for L’Oréal and LÃÂ¢ncome at Optimedia, says the difference in approach is a matter of commitment. “Sainsbury’s is prepared to invest in its title as a long-term venture. Boots obviously saw its magazine as a quick opportunity. It’s a shame because a Boots customer magazine is a good idea.”
Hudson concedes that Boots has more to do than Sainsbury’s to get customers used to buying magazines in a new retail setting. In contrast IPC has blamed Sainsbury’s success for circulation losses on its traditional practical, “checkout” magazines.
Potter declines to compare the two products and insists that the Sainsbury’s title is unique in that its editorial is based on Delia Smith recipes.
Boots claims its title has simply been suspended to allow the company to consider its future. But Oldham believes this is a cavalier attitude to magazine publishing. “You cannot treat your communication channels with customers like that. You have to wonder what the effect of suspending it has on the 100,000 customers who were willing to pay for it. It’s not the thing to do if you want to make a solid link with customers.”v