Just as shopping was one of the hallmarks of the Eighties, the retail magazine is a phenomenon of the Nineties. It reflects some recent marketing concerns such as the importance of developing dialogue with consumers and adding value in increasingly competitive markets.

Redwood Publishing is a leader in the field, producing magazines for outlets as varied as Harvey Nichols, Marks & Spencer, Boots, Woolworths and Safeway. Editorial director Christopher Ward is clear about the unique role of retail contract publications.

He says: “A successful magazine captures the spirit of the organisation it represents, so the M&S magazine should reflect classless excellence, Harvey Nichols should be elegant, chic and beautiful, and Good Idea for Woolworths should reflect brand values such as energy and family.”

Such distinctions highlight the need for a publication to support a shop’s brand values. This is an approach that Eddie Southcombe, managing director of publishing agency BLA – which doesn’t at the moment produce a retail magazine – argues is infrequently adopted.

Southcombe says: “Retail clients and publishers are not very adventurous. They tend to copy existing general interest titles instead of taking a marketing point of view and asking what customers would be interested to read. Rather than rehashing tried and tested formulae, magazines should aim to stimulate the reader and reflect their aims and ideas; they should be more marketing-led and tie in with things like point-of-sale displays and other advertising.

“Publishers should use marketing information from the client company, the retailer, emulating the techniques it uses to support its branding already. Remember, the magazine isn’t a brand; it should support the brand.”

River Publishing marketing director Nicola Murphy agrees with the importance of positioning and claims that River’s magazine for Asda does support the store’s brand values. The Asda magazine is produced monthly and 1.2 million copies are distributed free (but with a nominal cover price of 40p to add value) throughout stores. Core readers are C1, C2 and D housewives.

Murphy says: “A quarter of each issue is made up of independent features on family issues, including perhaps a celebrity family interview. This is what people say they want and, as Asda is seen as a family store, it is still part of the Asda branding. We have reflected the design of the magazines that shoppers like, such as Best and Bella. Indeed the ex-art director of Bella, Phil Tristram, is now our senior designer and art director. This makes readers comfortable. But we don’t emulate a women’s magazine.”

Murphy adds that although the magazine often ties in with store promotions to the extent that a reproduction of a page might be used in a point-of-sale display, it can’t just be a marketing vehicle. She says: “We get eight to 25 per cent response to competitions, letters and offers every month, so the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

Of course, one of the hardest things for publishers to decide is how to balance the general interest items and the features that directly promote goods in the store.

Here, different approaches seem to suit different retailers. Fifty per cent of the Asda magazine is given over to a subtle endorsement of in-house products, with fashion spreads featuring clothes by George (Asda’s in-house label) and recipes using Asda food products.

The proportion of self-promotion in The Magazine, Specialist Publication’s magazine for Iceland, is lower. Managing director Jim Addison says that out of a total of 68 pages, only eight will feature Iceland products. He argues: “The Magazine is intended to be a woman’s magazine. Research showed the readers wanted more fiction and letters. You have to have a ‘need to read’ factor and if the retailer maintains total editorial control and only promotes its own products, it must consider whether anyone will want to read the result.”

Promotions and competitions are often an area in which the two elements can meet. An inspired example is the recent reader competition in Woolworths’ Good Idea in which readers were able to win their weight in pick and mix sweets – a particularly Woolies piece of brand equity.

The magazine for Sports Shop chain JJB Sports leads readers through the magazine with bite-sized chunks of independent sports features to an eight-page “Best Buys” section at the end.

The M&S magazine, according to Ward at Redwood, “is like a walk through the store”. He says research showed that people thought the best articles were those on M&S itself. “There was an attitude that we can get holidays and horoscopes in any magazine,” he says.

Ward points out that the M&S publication can accessorise specific products in certain ways. “Whereas shops give you products, magazines give you ideas and show you how to use the products – for instance, showing what colours look good together. With the M&S magazine we can create a whole look, putting jewellery with evening wear and handbags with coats.”

Another key consideration for retailers is how to distribute their publications. Again, this varies according to the type of store involved.

Supermarkets such as Iceland and Asda tend to display their magazines in-store. The Sainsbury’s magazine is, of course, both at point of sale and in the news-stand section of the store. It makes sense not to mail these monthly publications because the cost of postage is high and the customers visit regularly anyway. Also, their presence in-store encourages consumers back to the shop.

On the other hand, stores dealing in higher-priced items, or with a more exclusive customer base, may find mailing more appropriate. The quarterly Harvey Nichols magazine is sold in-store but is also mailed to 50,000 cardholders as a perk.

Likewise, the new magazine for Do-It-All, also a quarterly, will be mailed to the store’s Bonus Club members to encourage them to come to the store and use their Bonus Club card to get discounts on products. Christine Woodman, marketing manager at its publisher, Brass Tacks – which also publishes Somerfield’s magazine – says: “The magazine reflects the purchase cycle of the store. With do-it-yourself, people tend to make a more long-term and considered purchase.”

Perhaps the most difficult issue for retailers is pricing. Should a customer magazine be free or carry a cover price? Opinions vary. The Magazine for Iceland costs 45p and Specialist’s Addison presents a clear case for charging: “Clients agree that they need a magazine with worth in its own right. A freebie is less demanding as it can just be about self-promotion. If you charge then you have to make it worth reading and it’s more important to make sure you’re giving customers what they want.”

River’s Asda magazine is free, though it carries a cover price of 40p. Murphy counters: “If a title is free it adds value to the shopping experience and the existing relationship between shop and shopper.”

Paid-for magazines are likely to have smaller circulations. Witness the much-lauded magazine for Sainsbury’s, which costs much the same as other glossy perfect-bound monthlies and has a circulation in the hundreds of thousands.

A free magazine here would certainly reach more Sainsbury’s customers but, the publishers would argue, the fact that people pay makes their readership more valuable, and it would hardly be cost-effective to produce a magazine with such high production values and then give it away.

The pricing issue has been in the news recently as Redwood announced it was relaunching its title for Boots as a give-away, having previously sold it for 90p. The new magazine is believed to be more product specific and will have a print run of 1.5 million.

Opinions vary as to why the paid-for version didn’t attract high sales. Some think the magazine was too self-promotional to carry a cover price. Others believe shoppers in a Boots store are simply not in a magazine-buying frame of mind.

The Boots experience shows how hard it is to get the balance right, and that what works for one retailer will not please another. Marcus Evans, managing director of the Ogilvy Loyalty Centre, believes the fundamental problem for retail magazines is the difficulty of producing one type of communication for the entire customer base.

He says: “For a start there are so many different kinds of shoppers. You’ve got the big shop, the economy shop, people who don’t know on Monday what they’re going to want on Thursday and who have to go in three times a week; niche customers like vegetarians, health freaks, worried shoppers concerned with cholesterol levels and the like; people with pets and people with kids – and that’s just food supermarkets. If you want to use the magazine as a marketing tool you need to consider carefully how to reach those customers.”

One solution, suggests Evans, is to go in for selective binding in which a different version of the magazine is offered to different segments from a retailer’s database.

“A mailed magazine done on this basis should work better than give-aways in store, but only if, through the data you hold, you attempt to influence purchasers to change their purchase patterns. If you are targeting people with children, you could include articles on the value of fresh fruit and vegetables. This approach is only expensive if you’re not getting the incremental revenue from increased sales generated by the magazine.”

So far, no UK publisher uses selective binding techniques, though they are commonly employed in the US. However, it seems clear that as competition in the retail environment increases and technology allows for more cost-effective and precise targeting, a more marketing-led approach to retail customer magazine publishing will emerge by the end of the century.

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