No room on the shelf for Sally

Launching a magazine has as much to do with positioning as it does with timing. That's why Sally O'Sullivan will have to wait.
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The Independent Online

Buying a magazine is simple. Just walk up to the stand, pick it up, and walk to the checkout. Getting it onto the shelf, however, is becoming an increasingly complex and bitter struggle.

That glossy publication, nestling just at eye-level in your local newsagent, has not arrived there by chance. It has fought off competitors for that prime shelf space (to avoid being buried in the far corner behind Eastern European Plant Monthly); it has had to parade its individuality and may have paid a dowry to retailers to ensure it even gets into the shop, and it has probably bumped off a competitor in the process.

Publishers are describing as "cut throat" the climate of competition as magazines muscle their way into what some believe is an already overcrowded market and the battle for shelf space becomes ever more fierce. Last week Cabal Communications, the publishing house set up by Sally O'Sullivan in 1998, postponed the launch of its new men's magazine, Mondo, until the autumn. Mondo will be a sophisticated men's title which will aim to give GQ and Arena a run for their money. But with the sheer number of new magazine launches all chasing the same shelf space, for the time being, it won't even get the chance.

With some 4,000 magazines already in the marketplace, retailers are beginning to question whether they even want any more new titles. Asda and WH Smith are among those who admit to examining titles increasingly carefully, to determine whether to stock them.

"In any magazine retailer you get a number of main titles, like Cosmopolitan, and a number of "second-tier" titles and it's sometimes just a question of whether they're all necessary, especially when you're limited for space," said a spokeswoman for Asda. "We are presented with increasing numbers of new magazines, and we take every decision in isolation, looking at whether it appeals to our customer base, and to see whether it's already duplicated by another title."

WH Smith reiterates this, and admits, like many, to a general policy of "one in one out". "That's in part caused by titles ceasing publication and often in any week there are as many titles dying as being born," a spokeswoman said. "But if we didn't think a publication added anything new for customers then we would turn it down."

This poses an increasing problem for those attempting to launch new titles, says Alun Williams, the circulation director of Cabal Communications. Safer to postpone a launch, as he has done with Mondo, than for it to end up on the wrong shelf - or on no shelf at all. "More and more, retail promotions are a key part of any launch strategy. If you've got a new magazine and you can't buy promotional space in stores, you're dependent on a store manager to put your magazine in the right place. And that's risky - if you're launching an older men's lifestyle magazine you don't want it between Sky and FHM, so that people think it's a young lad's mag - you want it between Arena and GQ," he says.

And shelf space itself is not enough for a successful launch.

"If you think your new title will sell well through travel points, WH Smith outlets at mainline stations, for example, will have "gondola ends" at the front of the store. That slot hits you in the face, and you get 16 full facings of magazines. To a title that's going to sell to commuters, when you think some two million people go through Victoria station alone every week, that's a prime position," he said.

"But there are 52 weeks in the year and there are now probably two or three magazines vying for that space at any time." Some stores, he said, will take publishers' "dumpings" (free standing promotional shelves) but that floor space is often booked months in advance for annual features like FHM's 100 Sexiest Babes. In turn, WH Smith's own magazine buyer may be competing for the space against the confectionery buyer, who might want it for Mars Bars.

There is also the problem of timing. Most retailers now require at least six months notice for a launch, and magazines want to send off their new publications at traditionally the best times for the industry. "Everyone wants to launch in spring and autumn, which heightens the pressure," says Mr Williams. "And you have to convince them that if they accept your title, their revenue will be more (retailers traditionally take around 25 per cent of the cover price), and also that it will be more suited to their shopper profile. In Cabal's case, it was therefore "relatively easy" to get Real Homes onto supermarket shelves (which now account for about 30 per cent of its sales) "but we struggled getting (lad's mag) Front in there at first, because it didn't fit their customer profile".

Vivien Cotterill, the publisher of She magazine, said the climate is such that she has already bought her promotional spaces and gondola ends through to December. "When people tell me we should be worried about new magazines launching, that we should worry about their content, I say: where are they going to go?"

She says magazines are increasingly being treated like FMCGs - fast-moving consumer goods - with retailers working out profit "per square foot", in the same way they do with foodstuffs.

One major supermarket, she said, recently dropped a television listings magazine that sold 400,000 copies a week. "They decided: how many TV listings magazines do we need? They knew that if that particular one wasn't available, customers would simply buy another one. That's how cut-throat it is."

In recognition of this, retailers are increasingly letting publishers "bid" for prime promotional space. "Asda recently had closed bids for its till points - but you also had to be able to say that you could produce both weeklies and monthlies for the slot." As a result, she said, some publishers were now secretly banding together to ensure they could secure the lucrative points.

Aware of their increasingly strong position, retailers have also begun to make their own decisions on pricing. Asda, for example, has recently begun selling some women's magazines at a discount price - a policy which Vivien Cotterill says her publication will resist fiercely.

But she believes that publishers have to get used to being treated like foodstuffs, especially as supermarkets increasingly account for sales (30 per cent in She's case). The answer, she believes, is book space way ahead, and try to ensure publishers are not entirely reliant on the big retailers.