Single-copy sales remained soft in the second half of last year, and publishers continued to tightly manage circulation efforts to reduce rate base bonuses, according to just released reports from the Audit Bureau of Circulations and BPA International covering the six months ended Dec. 31.
Of the top 50 magazines reporting single-copy sales, 30-or 60%-registered single-copy declines in the second half, vs. a year earlier, according to an Advertising Age analysis of the data.
For some magazines, low subscription prices and aggressive direct marketing efforts offset weakness at the newsstand. Of those same 50 magazines, 24-slightly less thanhalf-showed drops in total circulation.
"Single-copy's very soft, there's no question about it," said Michael Pashby, senior VP-consumer marketing at the Magazine Publishers of America. Still, he said, the overall circulation landscape "doesn't seem quite as bad as I expected it to be."
For the 460 titles tracked by ABC, total circulation rose 1.63%, according to an MPA analysis of the data. Subscriptions rose 2.7%, while single-copy sales fell 1.9%.
Dan Capell, managing director at Vos, Gruppo & Capell, a consultancy and investment banking company, said his analysis of the top 120 newsstand titles showed an average 4.4% decline in single-copy sales in the second half.
"That's 12 years in a row of decline for that group, and it's not getting better," Mr. Capell said. "Everybody has their reasons, but I still think it's lifestyle changes-cable TV, VCRs-and more titles [competing for] less space."
Publishers also blamed the recession and increased competition at checkout counters from candy, gum, battery and cola marketers.
"Everybody's in a tough recession and consumers are more discriminating about their buying habits," said Ann Moore, president of People. The weekly saw single-copy sales dip 3.9% to 1.66 million in the second half and total circulation fall 1.7% to 3.45 million.
"I really care about revenues more than I care about unit sales," Ms. Moore added, noting the magazine's cover price has risen twice in the past year.
Other publishers said they're also trimming rate base bonuses to squeeze profitability from circulation revenues. "We were running what I considered to be an obscene bonus that I will continue to try to manage down," said Lisa Valk Long, president of Time.
The newsweekly saw total circulation fall 2.4% to 4.10 million on a 4 million rate base. Its rivals didn't fare better. Newsweek's circulation declined 2.6% to 3.16 million, while U.S. News & World Report was down 1.1% to 2.28 million.
"We have a rate base of 3.2 million, so why should we be giving a bonus of 300,000," asked Redbook Publisher T.R. Shepard III. "You get what you pay for."
Redbook's single-copy sales rose 5.4%, but total circulation fell 1.5% to 3.35 million due to a 3.5% subscription decline.
The only other of the so-called Seven Sisters to show a single-copy gain was Family Circle, which cut its cover price to 99 cents last year to match archrival Woman's Day. Family Circle's single-copy sales rose 3% to 2.97 million, while Woman's Day's dipped 6.7% to under 3.19 million.
But while Family Circle saw a 3.2% drop in total circulation to 5.11 million, Woman's Day posted a 1% gain to 4.86 million.
Magazines that missed rate base, or delivered a circulation lower than the guarantee, included Boys' Life, First for Women, National Enquirer, Penthouse and Star.
Craig Vander Ploeg, managing director of First's ad sales and marketing arm, said the women's service magazine lowered its rate base to 1.2 million with the January 1994 issue.
Among the fastest-growing magazines in the second half: FamilyFun (+141%), Soap Opera Update (+135.5%), American Spectator (+76.8%), SmartMoney (+62.4%) and Your Money (+57.3%). Among the period's biggest losers: Bicycle Guide (-45.3%), Honolulu (-34.4%), Teen Beat (-31.8%), Luxury Lifestyles (-28.9%) and Best Recipes (-25.5%).
Conservative opinion magazine American Spectator is clearly benefiting from the presence of a Democrat in the White House and from strong publicity surrounding controversial stories on Anita Hill, Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Troopergate scandal.
"There's been a huge demand for this magazine," said Publisher Ronald Burr. "We're doing pieces that nobody else is doing."