The Biz: Women's titles hit hard at newsstand

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The newsstand was an ugly place for women's magazines in the first half of 2003.

The sales declines were "probably the worst I've seen," said Bob Castardi, president, Curtis Circulation Co., which distributes titles from Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing and Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S., among others. Mr. Castardi is a 30-year-plus veteran of the business.

It was a bad time for newsstand sales overall, with analysts citing a 5%-plus drop for the entire industry. But the big women's magazines had significantly harder falls, and these are titles that boast monthly newsstand sales that could be measured by the ton, sell ad pages by the thousands and form backbones of companies like Hearst Magazines and Meredith Corp.

risky move

Editors and executives cite a raft of reasons for the fall-off. Some titles, like G&J's Family Circle and Hachette's Woman's Day, took price hikes in an economic downturn-a risky move, given that executives concede women's service consumers are unusually price-sensitive. Wartime anxieties didn't help, these executives say, nor did a winter that snowed in regions for days at a time, nor did economic woes that cut down on supermarket traffic. (Still, weather woes and slow supermarket traffic didn't much hurt Wenner Media's checkout staple Us Weekly, which saw single-copy sales spike 24.8%.)

"The thing that hit the newsstand was our own SARS epidemic," said Ellen Levine, editor in chief of Hearst's Good Housekeeping. "People were panicking, and saving small amounts [of cash] wherever they could."

Women's service magazines draw a disproportionate amount of single-copy sales from supermarkets-but that fact also exposes them to secular, as opposed to cyclical, challenges. Supermarket chains continue to roll out self-scanning registers, which, executives note with some queasiness, typically do not have rack space for magazines. The checkout environment continues to attract other merchandise to compete for space magazines once monopolized. There's also the growth of warehouse players like Costco and Sam's Clubs, neither of which carry magazines.

"It's certainly a concern for all magazines that sell at supermarkets," said Dan Rubin, G & J's exec VP.

Couple that with the launches in 2000 of Time Inc.'s Real Simple and Hearst's O, The Oprah Magazine, which now sell a combined 3.9 million each month. "The market share's being divided among a greater number of players," said Jack Kliger, CEO of Hachette Filipacchi Media US.

It's a recipe for rising angst in these magazines' genteel editorial offices.

"The theory is that right now the tried-and-true newsstand sellers are just not working," be they some oft-photographed female celebrities or sexed-up coverlines, said an executive at a key women's title. So what could work? "More about money-saving and stress-balancing." That sounds like a decent description of the cover-line formula that Real Simple has ridden to a string of impressive newsstand increases.

more `treats'

Evidence supporting this executive's contention is not hard to find. Susan Ungaro, editor in chief of Family Circle, said past coverlines leaned harder on words like "treat" and "indulge." One recent lead coverline in Family Circle: "How to Spend Less and Enjoy More." And Ms. Levine said that October's Good Housekeeping will feature a pumpkin-but a smaller test run will boast reality show star Trista Rehn, an unusual choice for Good Housekeeping and a nod to the changing face of celebrities that can move readers to make impulse buys.

Both Ms. Ungaro and Ms. Levine cite improved newsstand results for the most recent issues of their magazines, but both stopped short of saying the declines have turned positive.

"A fairly flat number of readers are being divided" among more magazines, shrugs Hachette's Mr. Kliger. "The newer ones will be on an uptick. The mature ones have to protect share. There's probably not going to be growth."

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