Nice T-shirt, shame about the magazine

In the competitive market of women's magazines, publishers are increasingly resorting to the gimmickry of cover mounts to sell their product.

Young? Female? Off on holiday? Forget the trip to the High Street for your summer essentials. Just take a trip to your local newsstand. This month, with some judicious buying of light-reading for the journey, you can also secure your beach bag, evening bag, manicure set, sunglasses case, a novel or two and even a rather cute T-shirt.

Young? Female? Off on holiday? Forget the trip to the High Street for your summer essentials. Just take a trip to your local newsstand. This month, with some judicious buying of light-reading for the journey, you can also secure your beach bag, evening bag, manicure set, sunglasses case, a novel or two and even a rather cute T-shirt.

The women's monthly magazine market has gone cover mount crazy - cover mounts being the sexy little gifts found attached in all sorts of imaginative ways to the magazine itself. Last month's flip-flops, courtesy of Cosmopolitan, proved a particular wow among the fashion cognoscenti. As one commentator remarked recently: all the smart people dress according to the glossies. No, silly, not what's in them. What's on them. Once the province of DIY magazines (giving away neat plastic widgets) and craft titles ("fabulous new yarn to try!"), the cover mount has well and truly entered the mainstream.

For more than a year now, the women's monthlies have been competing among themselves to give away the biggest and best cover mounts. So sophisticated have the freebies become, that sometimes it's difficult to tell whether it's the magazine or the cover mount that is the main attraction. "One day I'm sure you'll find a fridge stuck to a magazine," says a slightly rueful Eve Pollard, the former Sunday Express and Sunday Mirror editor.

She might have reason to sound a tad peeved. Her foray into magazine proprietorship ended in tears late last month when her company, Parkhill Publishing, and with it its glossy women's monthly Aura, went into voluntary liquidation. Though Pollard insists cover mounts were never right for Aura ("We took the view that our readers would have enough nice purses already"), Parkhill's managing director, Richard Burton, has cited the expense of cover mounting, and Parkhill's inability to afford it, as one of the problems faced by the fledgling company.

While that is undoubtedly not the whole story of that company's demise, there is no question that, with a good gift, a publisher can boost magazine's sales by as much as 30 per cent.

Some in the newstrade even refer to certain titles as "Nightie Mags" -- their sales rising and falling dramatically, depending on the gift on offer.

But with the women's monthlies market as ferociously competitive as at it is now, with pushy young players, such as Emap's Red, big new launches, such as BBC Worldwide's Eve, and several more launches on their way, publishers will use any means to lure the floating voter in the newsagent -- even if it only adds up to a short-term sales boost.

And the cover mount is an effective weapon in the battle for readers. As Nigel Conway, of media buyer and planning company MediaVest, says: "Sure as eggs is eggs the market is not going to expand just because there are new magazines.

"Publishers have said, look, we need to reinvigorate our performance. Editorially, they've got as near a perfect product as they can get - the editorial standards of magazines are pretty similar - so what sets them apart is added value.

"Cover mounts are great because you've given your reader something, but the downside comes when you publish the next issue. If you don't give away something, your sales will fall. It's like a runaway train, and there's no getting off."

Some, like the National Magazine Company, claim to have been reluctant passengers in the first place.

"We didn't instigate this kind of activity. We were forced to respond to what our competitors started - and that was to protect our market share," says Duncan Edwards, deputy chief executive of NatMags, publishers of Cosmopolitan (this month offering "Free! Sexy summer read!", Wendy Holden novel worth £5.99) and Company (now sporting a free pink or black bandeau top, "worth £8.99!"). "What most publishers are doing is playing a share game," Edwards continues. "Cover mounts are pretty expensive and are probably not adding much value in terms of increased sales overall. The return on the investment is getting worse and worse."

He cites Emap, publisher of Red ("free stylish keyring"), as well as Attic Futura, with B ("French manicure set"), and IPC Media, with Marie-Claire ("the only bag to be seen with") and Nova (the cute t-shirt), as firing the first shots in the cover mount war.

But Sally Brampton, editor of Red, has professed herself unhappy with the aggressive use of such promotional devices, too. "In a sense, everybody's circulation now is completely artificial," she has complained.

Buying readers with cover mounts, according to Edwards, is costing publishers a "fortune". Aside from the gift itself, there are huge costs in sourcing them (they're mostly manufactured in the Far East), packing them and changing the magazine's usual production and distribution schedule.

Edwards, however, is reluctant to give concrete figures. In fact, most publishers are cagey when talking about the actual cost of cover mounting, with quotes ranging from 15p to £2 an issue.

Sally O'Sullivan, managing director of Cabal Communications and former editor of She, Harpers & Queen, Options and Good Housekeeping, says: "It's expensive and very rarely makes complete economic sense on the bottom line. But what cover mounting does is buy circulation for companies that can afford it."

Cabal, the small publishing company she set up two years ago, can't afford it, she adds. "The upside, though, for a small company is that our circulations will be real circulations because they're not pumped up by sales promotions. I still believe - and know, actually - that you never buy loyal readership with a cover mount."

There can be other disadvantages to cover mounts, too. Some magazine sectors have now become completely dependent for sales on them. As with buying a car and expecting it to have four wheels, says WH Smith's head of newspapers and magazines Michael Neil, so with computer and music titles: the consumer expects them to come bundled with software and music CDs attached.

What is more, the consumer's expectation is ever rising. While once the female magazine buyer may have been impressed with a small vial of shampoo, now she expects freebies with real street value.

" Marie-Claire last year cover mounted an organiser," says Neil. "It was a pretty tacky, crappy product and we had customers complaining. They thought they'd paid for it and the quality was poor. From a brand perspective, publishers have to be careful."

Duncan Edwards says Nat Mags is now considering withdrawing from the battlefield. "We'd welcome a move away from cover mounts," he admits.

"Certainly, I think it unlikely that next year we will have as many cover mounts as this year." Anyway, he says: "The British consumer probably has enough nylon bags and keyrings by now." But - with Cosmo expected to have sold an extra 50,000 copies last month - perhaps, Edwards might have added, they don't yet have quite enough flip-flops.

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