How porn mags help WH Smith clean up

BRITAIN: PR apart, there's still plenty of profit on the top shelf, writes Hester Lacey
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The Independent Online
It Seemed an impossible act but last week Britain's leading newsagent WH Smith managed to pull it off: to enrage pornographers and the anti- porn lobby so that they joined forces to accuse the firm of hypocrisy.

The condemnation came after WH Smith announced that it was to remove four leading soft-porn magazines - Penthouse, Mayfair, For Women and Playboy - from its high-street stores.

"Porn's out, prawns in - WH Smith clears the top shelf to make way for tasty snacks," commented the Express approvingly, as the company said it would start selling sandwiches instead, and the story made the front pages of the Telegraph and the Independent.

But a closer look reveals thatremoving girlie magazines from its 450 high-street branches is a drop in the ocean compared to the rest of WH Smith's commercial connection with porn.

The company will still stock the magazines in its 100 airport and station outlets but, more importantly, it will continue to distribute around 80 pornographic titles to the 26,000 independent retailers that it supplies as a wholesaler (the company distributes 43 per cent of Britain's total magazine market).

Smith's, which has been a familiar name on the British high street since the beginning of the century, made no bones about its decision to remove the titles being anything but commercial.

"While we are withdrawing these magazines from the high street they are not being withdrawn from our concessions, where they are still selling very well. It's a very strong market," said a spokeswoman.

Those both in favour of porn, and against it, were sceptical of Smith's motives. Anne Mayne of the Campaign Against Pornography said: "It's a definite PR stunt. They wouldn't be telling the nation if they had taken a few cookery magazines off the shelf."

"Ruth Corbett, editor of For Women, said that losing her place on the shelves in Smith's will not put much of a dent in sales - steady at around 60,000 a month.

"Even before the decision was made, they weren't stocking many copies of For Women".

"The general public don't know that Smith's distributes under many guises. It is such hypocrisy, really."

Pornographic magazines are particularly lucrative for publisher, distributor and retailer because they cost little to produce. A typical copy will cost around pounds 4, though "specialist" titles can cost up to pounds 10. Retailers take 25-30 per cent of the cover price, while distributors take a cut of around 17 per cent.

WH Smith's distribution of pornography has long been controversial, and has been a target of the Campaign Against Pornography for a decade.

Less than a year ago, the company was forced to change its magazine distribution policy when Hamdy Shahein, a newsagent from Stoke Newington in London, complained at being sent pornographic magazines that he did not want to stock. Newsagents can now opt out of stocking porn. But the company was further embarrassed when the letter sent out to explain this new policy referred to the "very valuable" adult market and pointed out that sales had gone up by 10 per cent over the previous year - and offered a list of 80 available pornographic titles.

"The magazines they have culled are best-sellers which they will sell in other markets and they'll get the money from them in another way," said Anne Mayne. "It is a relief that women and children won't have to see pornographic magazines when they go into their high-street branch of Smith's, but we are not lulled by any PR stunts that Smith's may pull. We are going to step up our campaign until they stop distributing porn altogether - what this does prove is that WH Smith does care about their image."

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