Launches crowd already tough field

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It's no coincidence that three of the most eagerly awaited new titles in the shelter magazine category promise "simple" decorating and design ideas, given the runaway success of Time Inc.'s Real Simple and its appeal to upscale women.

Coming next September is Time Inc.'s Cottage Living, whose tagline promises "comfort, simplicity and style." American Media will also enter the fray in 2004 with Happy Home, targeting "younger, upwardly mobile women looking for simpler ways of creating great personal style in their homes," says Sara Ruffin Costello, editor in chief of the magazine.

A catalog-like home decor magazine from Conde Nast Publications, due next year, is expected to simplify buyers' choices by doing for recliners and ceiling fans what Conde Nast's Lucky does for shoes and handbags.

But translating the hip, simpler-rules ethic into new ad pages and strong readership may be harder than it looks, say magazine industry insiders assessing the brutally competitive shelter field. In an overall "Home" category of magazines defined by Advertising Age's DataCenter and based on Publishers Information Bureau numbers, 2003 ad pages slipped 1.4% to 14,699.1.

"We're going to see some of the established titles in [the shelter] category forced to lower their rate bases this year with new titles entering the picture and making things more crowded," warns George Janson, managing partner-director of print for WPP Group's MediaEdge:cia, New York. "Eventually, we could see some shakeouts."


Results for 2003 were wildly mixed for individual titles in the shelter arena, underscoring the category's volatility. It could be a make-or-break year for weaker, more poorly defined players, say media analysts.

"To succeed from now on, shelter magazines must be very distinct and certain in their focus and positioning," says Brenda White, media director at Publicis Groupe's Starcom Worldwide, Chicago.

However, the shelter niche overall includes a wide array of magazines, ranging for the super-upscale Architectural Digest to the much more mass-appeal Better Homes & Gardens.

Buoying the shelter rivals is the fact that housing trends are strong, interest rates remain low and a fresh wave of refinancings occurred in the first quarter of 2004. There's a lot of money at stake for publishers that can nail consumers' decorating and rehab spending through precisely targeted magazines, Ms. White says.

Time Inc., through its Southern Progress Corp., hopes to carve out a new fan base for Cottage Living, centered on "simple, comfortable design themes," says Stephen Bohlinger, VP-publisher of the new venture.

Undeniably building on turf currently occupied by Hearst Magazines' Country Living and Meredith Corp.'s Country Home, Mr. Bohlinger says Cottage Living will target a more affluent and younger female reader than either of those titles, which outperfomed the magazine industry overall last year by posting ad page increases (see chart above).

"I take Cottage Living's tagline as a direct hit, since our theme of the last two years has been `Come home to comfort,' but from their title I envision a more narrow decorating style, and our success has been built around being very broad within the country theme," says Steven Grune, publisher of the 1.7 million rate-base Country Living.

Meredith's Country Home, which boasted one of the category's fattest ad page gains at 11.3% last year, isn't waiting idly for Cottage Living to open its doors. In June, the 1.5 million rate-base magazine will unveil a larger, more square-shaped trim size with a more expensive matte-finish paper, visually aligning it with more upscale shelter titles.

"Country Home is one of the fastest growing over-1-million-circulation books, behind [O, the Oprah Magazine] and Real Simple, and we're on a pace to continue our momentum this year," says Publisher David Kahn.

Increasingly, other publishing sectors are pursuing the advertisers endemic to shelter magazines, say media buyers. Clearly, a mixture of lifestyle and women's service editorial with decorating-and-rehab themes works, and more general magazines are "putting pressure" on shelter magazines with that strategy, Ms. White says.

Meredith's Better Homes & Gardens is the clear winner in that combination game, ending 2003 with 2,117 ad pages, a record for the title.

But other publishers are catching on to the lifestyle-plus-decor trick, including Hearst. The publisher of Oprah Winfrey's O will bring out two newsstand-only Oprah-branded special home-decorating issues this year. The first issue of O at Home is due May 11 and the second during the fourth quarter.

Among pure shelter books, there's proof that sticking with a formula works. Ad pages at Meredith's 939,000-circulation Traditional Home grew almost 19% in 2003, with huge growth from automotive advertisers, says Publisher Brenda Saget Darling. New advertisers this year include GapKids and Frangelica liquor.

Similarly, Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S.' Metropolitan Home scored a 16.9% ad page increase last year, and in 2004 boosted its frequency to eight issues from six.

reaching a mind-set

It was the "mind-set" of Metropolitan Home readers that lured Toyota Motor Sales USA to advertise Lexus' RX 300 sport-utility vehicle in the magazine last year, says Ann Bybee, Lexus' corporate manager for advertising, brand and product strategy. Metropolitan Home "was the right fit," she says.

A few smaller, tightly focused rising stars are gaining momentum in the shelter category, such as the modernist Dwell, launched on a shoestring in 2000 and now up to a rate base of 200,000. Another up-and-comer is Taunton Press' Inspired House, launched last fall to target eclectic, upscale homeowners.

The future is less certain for shelter magazines lacking a precise design focus, say magazine insiders. Examples include Conde Nast's House & Garden, whose ad pages slipped 13.6% last year, and Hearst's House Beautiful, with ad pages down 9.5%.

Hired in early 2003 to reverse the slide at H&G, Publisher Lori Burgess says ad pages will be up "significantly" this year, with new advertisers including Maytag Corp., Johnson & Johnson's Neutrogena and Ruth's Chris Steak House, plus furniture and building supply advertisers.

"Our endemic advertisers including makers of high-end fabrics and furniture had a tough year in 2003. And overall, advertisers are spending money more broadly across more magazines and a long list of decorating-based cable TV shows," says David Arnold, VP-publisher of House Beautiful. "We are sticking with our formula of targeting a diverse mix of design ideas to upscale, over-40 women."

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