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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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,
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.