What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? Reconsidering Newsstand Cadence
“Kenneth, what is the frequency?!”
In 1994 R.E.M. wrote a song about this non sequitur that was repeated by a disturbed man as he beat TV news anchor Dan Rather on the streets of New York City. The story goes that the man thought television networks were sending signals into his brain and was imploring Rather to tell him what frequency the networks were using so he could block it.
Many people in the magazine business are frantically asking themselves a similar question: What’s the appropriate frequency to maintain -- or better boost -- the revenue of newsstand magazines? And how should we reconsider frequency in the context of new consumer behaviors.
Here we’ll look at how some consumer behaviors are reshaping magazine frequency and how this might actually play into publishers favor.
Frequency Change #1: Consumers May Actual Want A Lower Frequency
The reductions in publishing frequency for weekly magazines like Sports Illustrated and Entertainment Weekly is not new. This was preceded years ago by TV Guide when they changed their frequency from weekly to bi-weekly. As the editorial of TV Guide shifted from listings to more entertainment editorial, it was a logical move to reduce the number of issues produced each year. The burgeoning number of cable channels made it increasingly difficult to run 24-hour listings with descriptive copy. Providing prime time grids and general daytime listings complemented by entertaining editorial was a logical shift to maintain the brand and its value to consumers.
Recently, it’s been announced that other titles are making the change to reduce frequency, and not all are weekly magazines; Essence, GQ, and Money all reduced their frequencies. Before it shuttered its doors, Success Magazine was considering reducing frequency from 12 to 10 or possibly 9 issues per year. I believe it’s a sign consumers are shopping differently today, and that their time to sit and read a magazine is more limited than ever before. If done properly, reducing publication frequency has the potential to maintain or increase revenues.
We know that there are many options for our time: television (including network TV and paid and free cable), streaming services (such as, Netflix, You Tube, Hulu), social media, and email. Meanwhile, radio, newspapers, movies, books, and magazines have not died. As a result, consumers are forced to choose how to use their scarce free time for an array of media.
Does this mean a 10-issue-per-year frequency for Essence will help their sales? Most likely. The average additional week on sale will generate additional sales each issue, possibly surpassing those of the monthly frequency.
One of the big problems with many high-frequency magazines is we just do not have the time to read them. Using my own reading habits as an example, years ago, when I received a subscription copy of Esquire, as I walked from the mailbox to the front door I made a conscious decision if I would put the issue on the “must read” pile, or place it on the stack to “recycle.”
I no longer subscribe to Esquire because the frequency of their title did not fit my lifestyle, however I still buy the three issues I want on the newsstand. They are netting approximately $1.60 more per copy than the subscription price. If the lost subscriptions could be transferred to newsstand, the three key elements of single copy management would benefit (publisher, distributor, retailer).
Frequency Change #2: Adjusting to Shopping Trends
Despite the fact that consumers have more choices for in-home entertainment and free digital content is widely available online, I believe a major portion of losses in retail magazine sales can be attributed to the rise of warehouse stores like BJs and Costco, as well as the restrictive lists of approved titles and allocation of display space.
Because of the warehouse clubs, consumers are shopping different today. Gone are the days when a shopper would walk (if you grew up in Washington Heights-Inwood Manhattan like me) to the nearest Finast or Acme down the street. We’d buy a loaf of bread, 2 rolls of toilet paper, a few cans of soup, and a quart of milk. We brought our purchases home in the easy to handle shopping cart.
Now, because of the rise of warehouse shopping, consumers are buying in bulk. 24 rolls of toilet paper, 20 packs of paper towels, 24 cans of soup, maybe 3 packages of bacon and super large bottles of shampoo. Their visits to the local supermarket have been reduced from twice a week to once a week or every 10 days for perishables or forgotten items. General merchandise like magazines don’t enjoy the frequent buys due by shoppers who go directly to the few items they need, bypassing the magazine mainline. They’ll pay at a self-scan checkout and make their way out of the store.
I believe this reduction in store visits has impacted the sale of magazine in all retail venues.
My hypothesis on high frequency correlating with lower sales is based on looking at the ups and downs of monthly frequency magazine sales. Yes, I fully realize that a strong cover will “close the deal” with the impulse buyer, but looking at available scan data, for monthly magazines, the buying trends are different than three or 4 years ago. Before, you definitely saw that the majority of a sale came in the first 2.5 weeks of the sale period. Now it is almost equal volume each week, with some showing a strong bump in the third week on sale. There are still those strong issues that outperform all others, but the occurrence of continued strong sales fluctuates from month-to-month with larger drops than before.
You don’t see this as frequently with bi-monthly or quarterly SIPs. There is a steady sales performance for all issues unless there is a horrible cover with horrible cover lines.
What can we do differently to boost store traffic and generate more frequent visits? First, we have to demonstrate to the retailer that magazines are profitable for their operation – and much of this is due to the discount of the mainline titles. It is good to have position papers and ROI charts, but the proof in the pudding is actually building traffic and generating sales.
As pointed out in a prior blog, Hearst did this successfully in the 1990s with Cosmopolitan and a line of beauty products. The magazine, the beauty advertiser, and the retailers all made money. When I worked on Vegetarian Times, working with local wholesalers around the country, we sent our chefs into retailers and to hold an event that publicized magazines and soy burgers, and we generated traffic that sold magazines and soy burgers.
Co-op programs like this can be developed to add excitement and build traffic to stores. We see this in the summer with the Barnes & Noble “Get Pop Cultured” event. Magazines and books enjoy increased sales due to increased store traffic during this promotion.
Here’s The Frequency, Kenneth
For the first time in many years People and The Economist are not the #1 and #2 ranked titles in Barnes & Noble according to the December 2017 Rank Report. It is Magnolia Journal. Two high frequency titles (weeklies) dropped behind a quarterly title, which is unusual because of the number of turns a weekly generates.
However, niche titles have hope, as marketers we have to make sure we have placement in the right markets in the right stores with the right amount of copies.
If my average sale of a niche monthly title priced at $4.99 a copy, was 1.5 copies an issue in 15,000 stores, that would be a total of 270,000 copies a year, equaling $1,347,300 in gross retail sales.
If the frequency was reduced to 10 issues a year to meet the change in consumer store visits, the additional week of sale could generate an increase of 1 copy to 2.5 copies per outlet, and the total unit sale would be 375,000 copies, equaling $1,871,250 gross retail and $523,950 in additional revenue. And, if the cover price were increased to $5.95, gross sales would be $2,231,250.
Small niche titles have hope: they need nurturing and creative solutions to build their audience, and to identify the frequency that works. The support of retailers, wholesalers and national distributors will help us push potential new releases forward to reach consumers, and to develop new retail outlets.
John Morthanos is a circulation consultant specializing in niche and
special interest publications. He was Vice President Specialty Sales at
Curtis Circulation Company, Vice President Single Copy Sales at Primedia
Special Interest Publications and Cowles Magazines, Circulation Director
at Viare Publishing, and Circulation Marketing Director at Ziff Davis