Shopping Theme Racks Up Explosive Readership and Ad Page Growth

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Advertising Age's Magazine of the Year does not nourish the tattered spirit of a restive nation. Nor does it locate the thus-far-faint cultural pulse that's gradually quickening
'Lucky,' the magazine about shopping, has been selected as the Ad Age's Magazine of the Year.


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into the next big movement. Nor does it, via seduction or force, engage readers in grappling with the deeper sociopolitical issues of the day. It displays product -- clothes and beauty items, specifically, and the shops that sell them -- with a minimum of text and tells readers how to buy.

A magazine, as one senior-level editor at another title puts it, that sees the world as "a series of products to be consumed." A magazine for women, but one that does not muddy that focus with anything about relationship, health or career advice. A magazine that includes its own take on Post-it notes, to better flag the goodies readers crave.

Invented a genre
The culture warriors in the audience can start hand-wringing, if they haven't already. But since its late 2000 launch, Conde Nast Publications' Lucky has invented a genre, made its influence visible elsewhere -- seen any eye-candy product pages in magazines lately? -- and, not least, delighted marketers and readers.

"The Magazine About Shopping," as Lucky bills itself, launched to what Vice President and Publisher Alexandra "Sandy" Golinkin admits was some advertiser bewilderment. But Lucky has attracted nearly a million subscribers and newsstand buyers who find its pragmatic approach to fashion irresistible. It's spawned a male-aimed offshoot, Cargo, at its parent company. Hearst Magazines and Time Inc. are considering their own takes on titles with shopping components. (A Hearst spokeswoman confirmed such a title is in development; a Time Inc. spokesman declined comment.)

'Friction free capitalism'
It's not that hard to see why. Lucky is a very seductive business model. In a time when magazines must scrap for every ad and newsstand dollar, a shopping magazine that won't require the staff heft of, say, a newsweekly is budgetary manna. Advertisers and especially retailers love Lucky's fostering an old-media version of what Microsoft's Bill Gates once

Photo: Chris Cassidy
Shopping 'til they drop are 'Lucky' editor Kim France (left) and publisher Sandy Golinkin.
termed "friction-free capitalism." Lucky creates an editorial environment that is, essentially, all about marketers -- making for a pretty formidable commerce machine.

"Everyone's talking about accountability and return on investment," says George Janson, senior partner and director of print at WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia, New York. "Lucky does that in a very profound way," he continues, citing "compelling case studies" of marketers that have run ads "and seen an actual lift in sales."

Perhaps most miraculously, the deft and inclusively hip tone of the magazine now wins grudging kudos from some who've decried it as another signpost of an ever-more-imminent cultural apocalypse.

'Soul death'
"The execution of Lucky is much smarter than anyone could have hoped for," says New York Magazine and Folio: columnist Simon Dumenco, who nonetheless doesn't entirely back off from an earlier assessment that product-obsessed magazines like Lucky and Time Inc.'s In Style represent a sort of "soul death" for American culture. "It's a step away from the usual sort of women's magazine inanity about why you should consume something," by positing "you should consume something because of its merits, not because some idiot celebrity wore it down a red carpet because some publicist gave it to her for free."

Such "soul death"-styled charges are old hat to Lucky's founding editor in chief, Kim France, as her detailed response to them testifies. "I can see why people would think that it means the magazine world is going to hell when this really hot magazine is a magazine without paragraphs," she says. "I get that. At the same time, all I ever tried to do was to fulfill a need, and by doing that I wasn't trying to squash anything meaningful in our culture." (Ms. France's byline appears with some regularity in the "The New York Times Book Review.")

"I really did feel very strongly that women had a more satisfying relationship with their catalogs than they did with their fashion magazines, because their catalogs gave them the clothes that they wanted in sizes that fit them and at prices they could afford," she continues.

What she has wrought
Nevertheless, even Ms. France, previously a deputy editor at New York Magazine in its Kurt Andersen glory days, sounds slightly scared at what her Lucky has wrought.

"Does my jaw drop in focus groups where women look at the 'Ask the Editors' column" -- a relatively straightforward question-and-answer feature -- "and say, 'I don't want to read that page because there's too much text there'? Yes. That freaks me the hell out."

"It was, almost, so simple that people were confused," Ms. Golinkin says of her pre-launch attempts to sell Lucky. She recalls, in particular, one early sales meeting in which "a high-level figure" stood up and offered some heartfelt condolences.

'Really sorry'
"I just want you to know," she says this person said, "that the agency really supports Conde Nast, and we know that you must be uncomfortable that you haven't found your way yet, and we're really sorry that this magazine looks like a catalog. We're sure you will figure it out."

Such assessments were more common than you'd think today. "I thought it was stupid when I first heard about it," says Pam McNeely, senior vice president and group media director at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Dailey & Associates, Los Angeles. "I wasn't quite catching the cultural significance of it."

The launch was aided by a "charter advertiser" discount -- a deal unheard of in the halls of Conde Nast -- which for some advertisers still runs, at lesser levels than at launch, until the end of this year. Ms. Golinkin says such ad pages only account for 10% of the title's 2003 total, which is expected to approach 1,500. If Lucky had ended 2002 with that ad page total, it would have been in the company of such powerhouse titles as Glamour and O, the Oprah Magazine.

Local retail sections
Lucky has also pushed hard into a regional sell unique to Conde Nast, hitting 14 different markets each month with localized retail sections. One-time full-color ad page rates for such sections range from $11,400 for New York to $5,150 for Toronto. The magazine's standard open page rate is $55,160, which will rise 11.2% to $61,325 after a 5.9% rate base increase in January from 850,000 to 900,000.

"Because of their non-traditional format," says Ms. McNeely, "they are able to break out of the Conde Nast straitjacket in terms of the different things they can do."

But despite the sharp and smart execution of its mission, Lucky's very nature makes some look at it oddly, and the magazine's non-traditional format -- with its inherent plasticity in the separation of advertising and editorial -- have raised eyebrows.

Lucky has long been a topic of conversation for the American Society of Magazine Editors, which sponsors the National Magazine Awards and sets forth standards governing the ad/edit divide.

ASME's concerns
The most recent iteration of ASME guidelines, amended in September, contains a passage warning against listing brand names on covers or cover flaps in connection with contests, after Lucky and other magazines made such moves.

ASME has also expressed concerns over Lucky's "stickers" page, which allows readers to flag pages of must-have items. In the past, this page had the word "Lucky" on it, and currently it shows scaled-down pages from the current issue. ASME members express concern over reader confusion: ad or editorial?

"I draw the line really scrupulously. Without that line drawn, Lucky has nothing," says Ms. France, who's a member of ASME.

"It is not deceiving the reader in any way," offers one non-Conde Nast industry executive. " 'The Magazine About Shopping' -- that's really straight."

Indeed, Lucky's unvarnished focus had the odd effect of making In Style, with its pages of celebrity red-carpet snaps and fantasy layouts of stars' home lives, seem slightly dated and prudish, as if it felt an institutional need to dress up what, at heart, was a re-edited catalog.

A change in direction
But celebs have started appearing on Lucky's covers -- starting with singer Mandy Moore in September -- in a move that reverses the title's no-celebrities stance when it launched. (Which also helped differentiate it from In Style.)

"I completely contradicted myself," Ms. France cheerfully admits, but she cites concerns about sticking out on a crowded newsstand -- and, presumably, that segment's role in further pumping up Lucky's circulation numbers. "It wasn't a decision I came to comfortably, but once I thought about it, I felt like we were stupid not to try it."

One last challenge
Even without the celebs, though, readers and the marketplace embraced Lucky. Which is why Ms. Golinkin now looks forward to conquering the last challenge.

"I look forward to the day when Lucky wins an ASME award for general excellence," she says, "even though we don't have articles. Because I think it will be when the magazine industry admits they accept Lucky for being wildly different, but extraordinarily wonderful for readers."

Ms. France has a less sanguine view: "I certainly know not to expect a general excellence award from ASME."

But, she adds, "I don't care so much. I know I've got the readers, and that community respects me."

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