MEDIA RETAILERS: Media Roundup - It's not about what you bought;it's where you bought it. David Ward reports

Does it really make a difference if you buy the same product in one

place or another, online or off? You bet it does, and that's why

profit-starved retailers are doing everything they can to illustrate the

point.



For most consumers, shopping is a straightforward experience. You go to

the store, find what you're looking for, buy it, and then bring it

home.



Few people realize the business that goes on behind the scenes. Retail

is an incredibly complex and competitive industry, involving product

selection, merchandising and displays, distribution, price points,

marketing, and of course, location.



In most retail segments, stores work on razor-thin profit margins.

Because of that, the business pages are full of chains (including

heavyweights like Barney's, J. Peterman, and Bradlees) that have been

forced into either temporary or permanent bankruptcy despite a loyal

client base and continued popularity.



The often pedantic complexity of the subject matter also means that

retail reporting traditionally has been a fairly narrow and unglamorous

field.



While there are numerous business writers covering publicly traded

retailers such as Kmart and Wal-Mart from a Wall Street perspective, the

bulk of the reporting is left primarily to vertical trade publications

such as Women's Wear Daily, Video Store magazine, and Discount Store

News.



Even today, there are still only a handful of journalists at national

publications covering retail as a category, including USA Today's Lorrie

Grant, Rebecca Quick of The Wall Street Journal, Leslie Kaufman of The

New York Times, and Anne D'Innocenzio of the Associated Press.



While most journalists will claim their beats can be difficult, retail

reporters may have some legitimate gripes. By and large, retailers are

publicity shy, preferring to build relationships directly with consumers

through advertising rather than using the news media as an

intermediary.



"They don't do a lot of self-promotion," notes Mark Seavy, who has

covered computer, consumer electronics, mass merchant, and video chains

as a senior editor at the leading trade publication Television Digest.

"Very few retailers, even the ones that are publicly traded, actively

seek publicity."



Lippe Taylor Public Relations' executive vice president Bill Daddi

echoes that assessment. "Traditionally, there's always been that feeling

among retailers of 'I don't want my competitor to find out what I'm

doing.'"



Shifting the focus from product to seller



Daddi, whose company has represented Nordstrom, Sears, Bath & Body

Works, and recently picked up part of Kmart's business, says that when

retail is covered by the general-interest press, it's usually from a

product rather than a store perspective. "They're checking it out to

find out what products are hot, and especially during the holiday season

to check for product availability on evening newscasts and in daily

papers," he says.



For a brief shining moment a few years ago, all that changed thanks to

the Internet and e-commerce. When brick-and-mortar stores turned to

e-commerce and became known as "click and mortars," they suddenly became

a hot topic, attracting technology and lifestyle reporters. The high

point of e-tailing was undoubtedly behind Time's decision to make

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos its Man of the Year.



David Karraker, vice president of corporate communications at Kmart's

BlueLight.com division, says when he started at the job two years ago,

the only reporters who talked to him were Internet reporters. "But when

the big brick-and-mortar companies started coming online - WalMart.com,

Target.com, and BlueLight.com - the major retail reporters began saying,

'Wait, I need to start covering this because that's really affecting the

company's stock.'"



In hindsight, it's easy to fault many of the retail reporters' coverage

during the dot-com mania, especially for not seeing through bad business

models (such as those based on selling 30 pounds of dog food for $15, and then having the online store pay to ship it cross-country).



But as Karraker notes, with billions of potential IPO dollars at stake,

it was hard to slow the e-commerce momentum. "We couldn't swing a dead

cat without getting coverage from these retailer reporters," he

says.



"The reporters were just so excited to cover something new."



Media coverage then and now



With the dot-com slump, normalcy has returned to retailing

journalism.



However, overall retail sales continue to be closely watched by

financial reporters, especially at TV outlets like CNNfn and CNBC.



Indeed, consumer confidence, which is directly linked to retail

shopping, has become a talisman for predicting the future. "With the

current economy, I think a lot of people are looking at retail sales as

an indicator of which way we'll be heading," says Daddi.



Tom Campbell, who has served as an executive and spokesman for several

consumer electronics chains in southern California, says he often

reaches out to technology journalists with a product-driven rather than

a retail-centric pitch. "There is an extremely savvy group of reporters,

and they are always on the lookout for new products and technology,"

says Campbell, now spokesman and board member for Los Angeles-based Ken

Crane's Home Entertainment. "We try to establish our store as the first

with new technologies, so when we have a breakthrough product, I'll call

them up directly and offer the story."



For the launch of the new chain White Barn Candle Company, Lippe Taylor

decided to hold a barn raising in New York City. "It was the first barn

raising in Manhattan in 103 years, and we constructed a 50-foot barn the

old-fashioned way," Daddi says.



Noting that few financial analysts and reporters focus on the

home-fragrance and home-decorating categories, Daddi says the barn

raising became a clever way to make them aware of the huge profit

potential of home fragrance and decorating. A gala for the barn for 600

guests was hosted by Meryl Streep, and White Barn presented a check to

the actress' Mothers and Others charity. The barn raising generated

coverage with several media outlets, including E!, The Wall Street

Journal, the New York Post, Today, Good Morning America, CNNfn, MSNBC,

and CNBC.



In much smaller markets, metro editors and producers will generally

grant coverage when major national chains open stores in their areas.

That type of coverage is difficult to replicate on a larger scale, but

it can be done if the approach is unique enough.



WHERE TO GO



Magazines: Business Week; Forbes; Fortune; Time; Newsweek; The Industry

Standard; US News & World Report



Trade publications: Women's Wear Daily; Supermarket News; Discount Store

News; Chain Drug Review; TWICE; Market Watch



Television: NBC's Today; ABC's Good Morning America; CBS' Early Show;

CNNfn; MSNBC; CNBC.



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