I recently came across a quote from an executive who said the newsstand is a crumbling method of distribution. It doesn’t need to be. After all, there will always be customers with commitment issues. And there will always be those who want a reading experience for a particular place at a particular time and who will pay a premium for that experience.
Circulation marketers around the world tend to focus on subscriptions due to their more predictable behaviours—not to mention the fact that newsstand sales on average account for just 7 percent of a magazine’s print circulation. But the newsstand need not be neglected; there are some simple ways to reinvigorate sales there. Aside from an impactful cover, we have noticed dramatically improved sales among key retailers that work with us to fine-tune their promotions, in addition to firming up their selection and taking initiatives to attract customer footfall, clean up their shelves, and make a nice in-store retail experience. It seems that a simple recipe of positive attention to business partners—and consumers—can help to stop decline from accelerating.
This points to the fact that digital alone cannot be blamed for marring print sales. The sheer volume of choices we are faced with at the newsstand has proven to be overwhelming, so much so that we sometimes choose not to buy anything at all. There is also an issue with a loss in real estate for print, as MagNet outlined in its 2015 Q1 Newsstand Sales Results report: “Magazines at retail are an impulsive purchase. If consumers can’t find our product, they can’t purchase it.”
But, if retailers are now driving footfall with other products, is that necessarily a bad thing? For The Economist, it isn’t. It is good to have retail outlets that carry attractive products for customers and that provide the discoverability of print titles in a fresher environment, particularly in airport and travel.
There’s no denying that people who used to buy magazines or newspapers at newsstands because their subscription copy was far away are now more often accessing a digital edition of a publication through an app. But to rule out the newsstand is to rule out the spontaneous reader who wants to simply pick up a print copy without downloading an app or going through registration. And those viewing a publication via an app or website may very well be torn away by an incoming call or email, popping up or pinging them on the very same device where they are reading.
In comparison, the good old-fashioned print publication has become a simple luxury (and it even appeals to a reader’s self-image, as he is proud to be seen with certain titles in hand). Because everything we do these days is digital, print is refreshingly classic—not unlike how having a record collection has become something special.
From talking to our readers I’ve learned more about the specific allure of print—and it’s something that won’t soon fade, no matter how dusty the newsstand shelves get. In this age of distraction, print offers an escape hatch. A recent survey we conducted contained this insight from a reader: “I consume so much information online that [a] print edition is an absolutely essential relief from all that.”
When surveyed, six percent of those who read our print edition even confessed to having a “reading ritual” that doubles as a respite from real life. One of them prepares a scotch and a bowl of peanuts and settles down to digest The Economist—reading first the obit, and then skimming the entire issue, turning down the corners of all the articles that interest him. Then comes another scotch, and the reading begins. Another respondent said she reads the newest issue each Saturday at her library, where she sits for hours at an old oak table near a large, sunny window. And I, as a traveller, know there are journey-specific reading rituals too. What better place is there outside of the home to tackle a full issue of The Economist in print than on a plane or a train?
Our digital readers reported some reading rituals, too, but they were somehow less romantic, less luxurious, and notably full of interruptions. This aligns with our finding that the engagement rates are much higher with our print edition than with its digital counterpart. Our digital app readers aspire to be just as thorough as print readers, but they’re simply not. I can’t help but wonder if this means reading print also leaves them feeling more accomplished or satisfied with themselves for having fully caught up on the happenings of the world, distraction-free?
Before you imagine that the gentleman with his scotch and the woman at the library are elderly, let me tell another thing I learned from a survey we recently conducted: 80 percent of college students opt to have print as part of their subscription when they subscribe to The Economist, and younger people are also more likely to sign up for a print-only subscription. Though it’s incredibly difficult to measure demographics at the newsstand, it’s quite possible that a good portion of those 4.5 million copies of The Economist that were sold at the newsstand last year went into the hands of the younger generation.
Even though we see the younger generation valuing print as a way to evade tech, we expect to see newsstand sales continue to decline, though not at the pace they have been over the last three years. Double-digit decline has been a commonality for many publications—last year the magazine industry overall hemorrhaged 14 percent of its newsstand sales in North America—but I expect that the decline will soon recede into single digits. In the meantime, those of us who believe in print, whether as a luxury or a necessity, are working to evolve the modern newsstand to better meet the needs of the consumer who is perfectly happy to pay for a valued product in print if it’s readily available and nicely displayed. The newsstand won’t crumble unless we let it.