A Modest Proposal
By John Harrington
It is a truth widely acknowledged that the magazine retail distribution channel is bordering on dysfunctional, yet, at the same time, it is commonly accepted that the dysfunction is not the primary or even secondary cause of seven-plus years of double digit unit sales declines. That dismal performance is generally blamed on the Great Recession of 2008 that altered consumer shopping habits, sometimes referred to as a recession hangover; and on the warp speed technology developments that have produced a bewildering bevy of competitive digital products providing information and entertainment. Most publishing management, even though retail unit sales are only half of they were in 2007 and with no bottom in sight, still maintains that retail/newsstand remains important to their business model, particularly for introducing new titles and in establishing and maintaining their brands in the public's consciousness. Still, despite the passage of time and the inexorably downward sales trend, little, if anything has been done to deal with the issue of, as the troops in the field call it, consumption.
Granted, driving consumer buying habits is a complex and costly endeavor. This was exactly the frustration that emerged from a workshop discussion on that very subject at June's Magazines at Retail Conference in Baltimore. The participants were primarily publisher newsstand and national distributor executives, along with some wholesaler and retail representatives. More than a few times, examples were described where ideas for some levels of promotion directed at the public were when, brought to upper levels of publisher management where support was required, denied because the funding was unavailable.
So, with that cost barrier in mind, let me offer a modest proposal.
Every publisher maintains an e-mail file of its subscribers. I know this is true because I am inundated by them from each magazine I subscribe to: solicitations to sign up for other titles they publish, reminders to renew, promotions for feature articles in the current or upcoming issue, and some other things that escape me at the moment. I have in the past suggested to a few publishers that they send an e-mail to the subscriber list of one of their publications informing them that the new issue of one of their other titles in now available at the nearest newsstand display, be it a supermarket, drugstore, bookstore, convenience store, etc. My suggestion has not, regrettably, at least to me, been met with receptive ears. So, let me modify it a little.
What if one of the industry trade associations, be it MPA the Association of Magazine Media, the International Periodical Distributors Association (IPDA), the Periodical and Book Association of America (PBAA). or all them working together were to develop an e-mail message that said something like this?
"We know you like magazines because you subscribe to one or more of them. Did you know that there are literally thousands of magazines, from general interest ones to enthusiast titles covering every subject you can imagine, including your favorite topics. A great way to sample them and discover the one or ones you'll become a fan of is to go by the nearest store where they're sold, be it the local supermarket, drugstore, bookstore, etc. We're sure you will find something that appeals to you. Give it a try."
The message, which would not be expensive to develop, even with some attractive graphics added, could be provided to publishers, who would be asked to send it to their subscriber e-mail lists. The costs to the publishers would also be minimal.
I understand that a subscription solicitation is considered successful if only a relatively small response is generated. So, if only a small number of the millions and millions of subscribers took the time to stop in front of a magazine display in a store they are likely to visit anyway, and bought a magazine, the impact on magazine retail sales will be substantial.
Low cost, and not a lot of moving parts. What is there to object to?