Source Interlink Distribution (SID)
—the second largest distributor of magazines to retail outlets— just crashed
and burned. Two excellent observations come from D.B. Hebbard
and Bob Sacks.
Yes, this event triggers the now traditional print
v. digital discourse ritual. Ah, what a glorious, stirring, and even urgent
dialog that is.
But –er- there’s a larger issue:
namely, do publishers know how to sell magazines to consumers?
The asteroid that struck the
newsstand was not the digital age. It was the great wholesaler consolidation,
triggered by supermarket chains in 1995. Baird Davis explains it well in
“…in 1995,” writes Davis, “Safeway
challenged wholesaler’s geographic control by putting their nationwide magazine
contract up for bid. Their successful effort, in effect, broke the concept of
local wholesaler autonomy. It unleashed a massive change in magazine channel
operations. Over the next five years the diverse magazine wholesaling business
rapidly consolidated. The number of independent wholesalers declined from over
300 to 4 major wholesalers controlling over 90 percent of the business.”
While the consolidation was a shock
to publishers, it was a horror to wholesalers. Quite simply it cost them too
much to service their retailer customers with poorly performing magazine
“In the process,” Davis notes, “the
economics of the business were dramatically transformed. The magazine
wholesaling industry, in a few short years, went from being a group of insanely
profitable locally-owned businesses to a handful of mega-sized financially
fragile regional businesses.”
I dredged up something I wrote for
Magazine Retailer in 1999. For
historical perspective, that’s two years before the iPod and 11 years before
the iPad. What is presented is a
distributor-centric solution to the problem — how to sell magazines for fun and
profit. As yet, there still is no publisher-centric solution.
On September 28, the softspoken
Joel Anderson of Anderson News stood at the podium of a meeting room in the
Manhattan offices of the Magazine Publishers of America He was there to tell
MPA members and other interested parties about his company's new two-tier
approach to the distribution of magazines. The two tines are Anderson News and
a new division called National Publications Center (NPC). Publishers are
understandably worried about being two-tine losers and so he also was there to
listen to the publishers and answer their questions. He might as well have
begun his talk by saying, "We mean you no harm."
The wholesale distribution of
magazines suffers, according to Anderson, from the imbalance that comes from
too many magazine titles and not enough display space. He likened it to trying
to pour six gallons of water into a five-gallon bucket. Moreover, Anderson
noted that the low sellthrough of so many titles have made them too costly for
his company to carry. He reminded the
attendees that, when the recent great consolidation played saloogi with wholesaler margins, Anderson News enacted a policy
that would in effect have publishers of particularly inefficient titles share
the economic burden. Anderson indicated that this idea did not enchant
publishers all that much and, although it still was Anderson policy it hasn't
been actively pursued.
The two-tier Anderson solution
calls for the distribution of the approximately 2500 of the most
"productive" magazines by Anderson News to most of the nearly 42,000
locations the company services. The new NPC division, based in LaVergne
(Tenn.), specifically will handle approximately 1500 titles that are not mass
market magazines. These will go to some or all of 2100 selected stores. The essential
criteria are national and regional performance.
The NPC stores are in a variety of channels and communities. They
tend to be in major markets and have a lot of display space. So, the NPC titles
will go from the printer to LaVergne. The assortments will be prepared for the
2100 stores, and then shipped to the various Anderson distribution centers.
These packages will be combined with the other Anderson News allotments going
to the 2100 stores. The Anderson field staffs will take the combined packages
and service their accounts for both delivery and pick-up. Publishers of NPC
titles will pay some sort of NPC charge. Anderson would not discuss pricing at
The intentions are pretty clear.
Unshackle the potential of the better-selling magazines. Make the less
productive magazines earn their keeps. And keep the process seamless for
retailers who only will be dealing with Anderson field personnel. Anderson
suggested that this approach will reward retailers through efficiencies and
profits that come from better use of display space and personnel time.
Anderson offered publishers some
upbeat predictions, as well. He said they suffer from compressed on-sale
cycles, the reality that some titles are immediately returned or don't even get
to the stores, and the expensive waste that comes from 75-80% of a print run
never getting sold. In what some saw as a kind of doublethink, he said that the
NPC approach saves the publishers money
– when compared to the surcharge system Anderson previously tried to install.
The ensuing publisher questions and
polite but firm Anderson answers emphasized that the new system definitely and
understandably is a distributor-oriented solution. This Anderson approach
focuses on pick-and-pack productivity and limits delivery of less profitable
publications to an extremely finite but targeted and, publishers hope,
Yes, specific retailer/publisher
promotional arrangements will be honored even if the arrangement is between an
Anderson customer and a NPC publisher.
No, a publisher of eight Anderson
titles and two NPC titles cannot get Anderson to carry the two NPC titles.
Yes, a national magazine that has
regional editions and regional covers may encounter some difficulty.
No, a NPC customer that sells out
probably won't have time to replenish.
No, the fact that a publication
makes money for its publisher has no bearing on whether it's profitable for
As for new titles, they will be
reviewed on a case by case basis.
And so on.
Clearly the introduction of RPC is
not a publisher solution to what Anderson characterizes as imbalance. Clutter
has previously been defined on these pages as a publisher's term for another
publisher's product. Nor is the Anderson initiative really a retailer solution
that should take into account such items as store-specific data, cross
merchandizing support, and characteristics unique to each specific store and
its positioning. .
In addition to concerns and issues
raised at the Anderson MPA meeting, other thoughts are worth pondering. For one
thing, there's the basic rule that marketers don't often discuss: Customers
don't necessarily do what they're supposed to. We wonder if independent stores
will find it easier to offer a wider selection of titles than their chain store
competitors. Will retailers be able to respond to consumer demand and
demonstrate the kind of differentiation needed for quality marketing? Direct
distributors are already looking to line up additional opportunities. And we
wonder if Anderson's actions will right the "imbalance" or lead to a
heightened caste system among publishers and Balkanization of retail channels.
Or do both.
Back at the MPA, the last question
for Joel Anderson came from a publisher who felt small publishers were being
put at a particular disadvantage. He wondered about where larger publishers
were in all of this.
Anderson remained silent for a moment and then advised the
questioner and others in the room to listen to the sound of the other shoe
Post script: In 2009, The News
Group purchased Anderson News assets.