NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Recession and a dispute with magazine wholesalers combined to hammer many titles' newsstand sales in the first half of this year -- much as publishers worried they would. That's based on new numbers from many publishers in the lead-up to a big semi-annual report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
Happily for the industry, many magazines rely much more on subscriptions, which seemed to hold up better. Reader's Digest saw newsstand sales sink 20% from the first half of 2008, for example, but those single-copy sales represent a sliver of its circulation. Subscriptions, comprising 92% of the pie, fell a much more manageable 3%, so Reader's Digest still exceeded its circulation guarantee to advertisers.
But newsstand copies are a great way to get potential readers to sample a new magazine. Cover prices are much higher than subscription prices. And buyers who then subscribe using the blow-in cards inside are more likely to pay and renew than subscribers from other sources. What's more, advertisers sometimes view newsstand sales as a measure of vitality. So nobody enjoyed the big declines last year -- and nobody wanted to see more.
Unfortunately, many magazines saw just that.
Newsstand sales fell 15% at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, where declines reached 23% at Everyday Food, 20% at flagship Martha Stewart Living, 7% at Body & Soul and 6% at Martha Stewart Weddings. "The entire magazine category reported weakness in retail, single-copy sales in the first half, clearly the result of continued softness in consumer spending," the company said. "Of the competitive set of titles that we compare ourselves to, the average unit sale decline was 19%."
At American Media, newsstand sales fell 13%, with declines of 25% at Muscle & Fitness, 22% at Natural Health, 18% at Flex, 17% at Muscle & Fitness Hers, 14% at Star, 13% at Shape and 9% at Men's Fitness. Natural Health and Men's Fitness fell short of their guaranteed paid circulation. The two brightest spots: Fit Pregnancy slipped just 3% and Mom & Baby just 2%.
Effects of recession
Did the recession hurt? "For sure -- with both disposable incomes strained as well as reduced trips to the supermarket," said David Leckey, exec VP-consumer marketing.
New York Magazine saw newsstand sales fall 13%, a drop it attributed to the economy and the wholesaler dispute. "Because newsstand sales represent less than 5% of our overall circulation, a 13% dip in sales represents a difference of about 3,000 copies per week," a spokeswoman said, "a relative drop in the bucket for the company's overall revenue and sales."
New York is also hiking its newsstand price to $4.99 from $3.99 in September, a sign of confidence in continued demand for the product, the spokeswoman said. Wenner Media's Us Weekly lost just 3% on newsstands, while Men's Journal fell 5% and Rolling Stone dropped 11%.
Rodale reported mixed results to the audit bureau: Newsstand sales sank 10% at Men's Health, 8% at Bicycling and 3% at Running Times, but they grew 18% at Organic Gardening, 9% at Women's Health and 1% at Runner's World. Prevention's newsstand sales slid 19%, but partly because of a cover price hike.
Most of Meredith's magazines experienced big newsstand declines, but the company downplayed their importance. The wholesaler disruption contributed to declines at Parents, down 28%, and Traditional Home, down 10%, according to Andy Sareyan, exec VP-chief brand officer at the national media group as well as president of Better Homes and Gardens. Declines of 46% at Ladies' Home Journal, 35% at Better Homes and Gardens, 30% at Fitness and 24% at Family Circle stemmed not just from wholesaler problems, he said, but also the end of a test program that had increased sales in 2008.
"Were it not for those two factors, we were about flat with the prior period on the newsstand, and many of our titles saw gains," Mr. Sareyan said. "The type of material that our books cover -- home, family, personal well-being and so forth -- have been categories where there is, if anything, more interest." Newsstand sales at the company's More magazine held steady from the year before.
Some titles reported newsstand gains. Saveur's single-copy sales rose 4% from the first six months of 2008, according to publisher Merri Lee Kingsly. She chalked up the growth to editorial consistency despite the temptation to veer into cover stories on budget living. "We didn't abandon our audience that has been picking us up for years and follow the economy," she said.
The Audit Bureau of Circulations, the industry's dominant circulation monitor, will publish its comprehensive roundup about the first half on Aug. 31.