Secrets of Newsstand Distribution for Smaller Publishers
The newsstand can be a brutal place for any publisher but especially for a new magazine without a proven track record. Identifying where your key constituencies are is critical. As a small independent magazine, Bee (which launched in 2005) sought more exclusive distribution, including premium booksellers and specialty foods retailers like Whole Foods and Wild Oats. "It lends a certain prestige to be in stores like that," says CEO and co-founding publisher Celine Gumbiner. "We didn’t want to be in supermarkets;you need to be very mainstream for that. There’s a great connotation being in Whole Foods and Wild Oats, they care so much about what they put in their stores that it lends a lot more to the idea of being a credible source."
However, Wild Oats and Whole Foods usually don’t accept smaller publishers, and even then it’s typically just environmental magazines rather than a quarterly women’s professional magazine such as Bee. While Bee’s distributor Circ One pitched the magazine to both stores, it took a more personal connection to finally land the business. "The magazine buyer for Whole Foods and Wild Oats had seen Bee but wasn’t sure because we were so new. He wanted a bit more of a track record," says Gumbiner. "His wife got hold of it, said, ﾑOh my goodness, this is such a great mission, you have to put this magazine in stores.’"
To start developing a strategy, assess the buying habits of customers and how that fits in with your message. Will they understand your magazine at a glance as they grab their groceries and go? Or do they need time to browse? Bee is looking at distribution for its next few issues at airports through Hudson News. "These days, everyone has a little more time to browse while waiting for their flight," laughs Bee president Erik Velez.
The Right Number of Issues
Along with securing placement, gauging the right number of copies is one of the hardest parts of newsstand distribution for a smaller publisher, according to Velez. "One of the most difficult aspects of being a new publisher and not a Hearst or Time or Conde Nast is not having historical figures going back 10, 15, 20 years that offer a general idea of how many copies you’ll sell and where you sell fast," he says. "We’re not at the top of any retailer’s list. We get an estimate of print orders about a month before the ship date but we get a list with the finalized amount only about two weeks before."
Building newsstand tends to be less expensive than building a subscription base but it’s more dangerous because there’s no guarantee of someone paying for a copy. Bee averages sell-through of about 30 percent to 35 percent per issue. "You don’t dictate to the store how many copies they’ll take, they tell you," says Velez. "Especially as a small publisher, they watch your numbers and your sell-through. For example, if we print around 120,000 copies and we put 30,000 on newsstands, the percentage is around 38 percent on newsstands. That fluctuates by 5 to 8 points depending on sales of the last issue. You have to consider that when you’re dealing with four or five different retailers, and they’re such giants, you’re really at their mercy to get the issues out on shelves on time."
Don’t count on the retailer to move your new magazine to the front of the row, regardless of how great your concept is or how snazzy the cover. When Bee goes into more mainstream stores, it will run an endcap or display cap promotion every few issues to stay top of mind with the consumer (and also the retailer). Bee may raise the number of copies it distributes by five or 10 thousand for a promotion. "In certain cases it’s worked for us, in others the price hasn’t led us to the sales being high enough to make more money on it," says Velez. " You have to gauge whether the price discrepancy of a promotion is worth the marketing and additional view of the magazine, and you have to do that over the course of the next few issues."
But ultimately, it still comes down to the basics. "More than anything it’s the cover, how we display it, and how we get it into the hands of those women who walk by who have one or two seconds to decide," says Velez. "As we go on to our seventh issue, our onsale issues are moving slowly but surely forward from the back of the row."
Most Mag-Friendly Retailer? Look to Barnes & Noble
Let’s face it, despite being one of the more profitable retail products, magazines are just not a priority for most retailers, particularly large grocery chains. Bookstores tend to give magazines more attention, but even there not all retailers are equal. Most magazine publishers seem to agree that Barnes & Noble is head-and-shoulders above other book retailers when it comes to taking care of magazine partners, from weekly sales updates to old-fashioned customer service.
"It’s been most useful dealing with B&N," says Bee president and co-founding publisher Eric Velez. "With Borders, we don’t know what we’ve sold until two months past the offsale date. B&N gives us weekly sales responses that let me know if something is wrong." Two issues ago, Bee ran a display endcase promotion with Barnes & Noble but noticed by the sales numbers that the display case hadn’t been put up. "Barnes & Noble was good to deal with," says Velez. "They gave us a display case for the next issue and some extras because they felt badly about it. In our case, B&N have been the easiest to deal with and most accommodating of a new publisher, even when they really don’t have to be."