View from City Road: Food for thought at the supermarket

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The Independent Online
Exit the wilting lettuce and enter the glossy magazine. Down at your local supermarket the printed word has begun to encroach on shelf space previously reserved for oral, not ocular, consumption.

The past few years have seen an explosion in the number of sales outlets open to newspapers and top-selling consumer magazines. From a cold start a few years ago, supermarkets now take around 10 per cent of the pounds 2.5bn-a-year newspaper market.

Publishers are unsure whether to cheer or sob. On the plus side, the more outlets the more sales. On the minus, they face a tougher life - supermarkets are in a position to insist on tight margins and as far as magazines are concerned they can aggressively pick and chose their titles. Not for them the likes of European Baker or Your Cat.

Which is why conventional wisdom has seen little threat in the trend to W H Smith, the grandaddy of periodical vendors. Its enormous range of magazines is its unique selling point and magazines, rather than newspapers are its bedrock, accounting for more than two-thirds of its pounds 170m of print sales a year.

But it may be about to face a much more serious challenge. Over the past few months Woolworth has been experimenting with selling newspapers and magazines in a handful of stores.

Now the word is that it is about to go nationwide in around 200 stores - almost half as many outlets as W H Smith can boast and in equally prestigious high street locations.

Moreover, with acres of slack shelving - parent Kingfisher has done a valiant job cutting it by a third but space is still scarcely at a premium - Woolworths will be able to provide a range which could compete with the best W H Smith has to offer.

Of course, more outlets may mean more profits for W H Smith's mighty distribution arm. But even here there are dark clouds ahead. If the likes of Safeway can move perishables such as bananas and ice cream around the country, why should newspapers and magazines be any different.