More women are reading titles produced for the likes of Asda, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Waitrose than Family Circle, Good Housekeeping or Marie Claire, according to the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) figures for customer titles. Publicis Blueprint-produced ASDA is the leading women's monthly title in the UK, with a circulation of more than 2.2 million.
Meanwhile, other retailers, including Homebase and Threshers, have launched titles, and Debenhams' magazine is set to debut next month.
Indeed, according to Mintel, there were 52 retail and distribution-type titles operating last year, and the sector showed a growth of five per cent in 2003. While this rosy picture has been checked somewhat by Morrison's decision to ditch Safeway's magazine, just last month Holland & Barrett reportedly ordered a 50,000-copy reprint of its Healthy title to keep up with in-store demand.
The question is: what are PROs doing to get their clients featured in contract-published titles? Gaining coverage is no simple feat. 'Retail magazines are a pretty hard nut to crack as their huge circulations and customer loyalty means that most recognise their own commercial value, so the ball is strongly in their court,' says Nexus Communications MD Alan Twigg.
A fight for space
This problem, coupled with the natural bias that publications show toward own brands and the sheer volume of new products launched each month, means suppliers and third parties are scrapping over a few pages of editorial space in each edition.
Although, as Twigg concedes, with many generic food clients, including the British Soft Drinks Association, his agency has it easier than some. In April, for example, Nexus convinced Waitrose's Seasons magazine to promote eggs as the 'ultimate convenience and comfort food'.
However, many PROs suspect that in the case of most supermarket publications, without investing in hefty advertising, advertorials, money-off schemes or in-store activity, free editorial coverage is hard won. 'Titles such as Sainsbury's and Tesco's magazines provide access to enormous consumer trust and loyalty because they're talking to readers as their supermarket of choice,' says Naomi Proudlove, associate director of food and drink specialist agency Phipps PR.
'But retail customer magazines are influenced by advertising spend and increasingly dominated by the decisions of the buying team over the editorial team. This means they can be expensive to target, so not really a suitable option for smaller brands,' she adds.
This view is echoed by many, although Waitrose Food Illustrated, produced by John Brown Citrus Publishing, appears to enjoy a higher reputation than its peers for featuring niche brands. For example, in July, the Waitrose glossy ran a piece promoting organic food manufacturer Green & Black's new vanilla ice cream brick, with stylish photography and recipe ideas.
Despite the barriers to accessing retail magazines, it is possible to secure coverage for suppliers and third parties, as long as the objectives of the retailer that owns the publication are taken into account.
'Supermarkets are very specific about how they tailor their magazine's content to their customers, and PROs need to understand the magazine's brand values, its editorial pulse points and how best to work with them,' says Hill & Knowlton director of consumer marketing Maria Boyle.
This view is echoed by the magazine editors and publishers themselves.
'The key is to try and understand the audience a magazine is aimed at and realise that most customer titles are about giving people solutions, not necessarily news or product reviews,' says John Brown Citrus Publishing editorial director Paul Colbert.
It is also a question of sussing out which publications are primarily driven by selling products and which are about building brands and therefore open to a broader editorial remit.
Threshers' new quarterly magazine flavour, for example, with its beer and wine listings and in-store discounts, is almost a no-go proposition for anyone outside the beverages market. However, a quick flick through this autumn's edition reveals features about mushrooms, cheese, fashion and holidays.
Open to outsiders
Likewise, with a cover price of £1.25, Holland & Barrett's Healthy, produced by River Publishing, features a wide range of articles on health, fitness and beauty by mainstream journalists, such as The Observer columnist Dr John Briffa and The Daily Telegraph writer Dr Sarah Brewer.
Although magazine editor Annabel Meggeson stresses that in the interests of protecting its commercial interests, Holland & Barrett does have a strong editorial policy of only mentioning generic products, rather than individual brands, she adds: 'But we have featured an acupressure ring from Silent Night that prevents snoring, run a give-away on branded blood-pressure monitors, and we regularly name spas and health centres.'
As a general rule, most retail customer magazines prefer category stories that are not overly branded because they allow the title to include or reference their own-label products.
Six months ago, however, Harvey Nichols's customer magazine split its print run to produce four different covers to flag up an extended Chanel cosmetics concession in-store.
For the supermarket titles, it is mostly about seasonal editorial hooks, such as Christmas, spring, summer and back-to-school-type activity. In addition, topical pieces are always popular, such as profiling Greek food and recipes to coincide with this summer's Olympic Games in Athens.
Shine Communications, however, pulled off a coup for Royal Doulton in this month's edition of Sainsbury's Magazine, which includes a feature on a new range of 'must-have' glassware created by fashion designer Julien Macdonald.
'Supermarket titles have become an increasingly important sector for us because the readers are the perfect target audience and, in the case of Royal Doulton and Sainsbury's, the brands share similar values,' says Shine account manager Sherawaye Pascual.
If the supermarket titles are a tricky market to access, once conquered, they have the potential to deliver fantastic results. Waitrose Food Illustrated calculates that magazine coverage has generated sales uplift of up to 72 per cent for some of its featured brands, while ASDA claims up to four-figure percentage increases across some categories following its relaunch last year.
As Green & Black marketing controller Ally Simmons points out, working with retail customer magazines can be incredibly beneficial because they provide highly targeted support for products in a way other consumer food magazines may not.
Rare Publishing MD Julian Downing What is the circulation and frequency of Somerfield Magazine - who reads it and how much does it cost?
We have a circulation of 1.1 million and 13 editions a year. Copies are distributed free in-store and are read by 2.7 million people - mostly women aged over 35.
What is the editorial mission of Somerfield Magazine?
The magazine aims to be a trusted, authoritative and accessible food magazine. Our mix of quick and easy recipes, wine recommendations and informative articles fulfil the demands of our busy readers. We seek to inform about new and exciting products available at Somerfield.
What distinguishes your magazine from other titles in the sector?
One main point of difference is that we focus predominantly on food and wine; we have not branched out into lifestyle.
What are the key areas you seek to cover in the editorial?
Cooking, recipes and food issues. Plus we often feature broader interviews with relevant celebrities who talk about the context of food within their lives.
What PR opportunities are offered to Somerfield suppliers?
We are always interested in tying up with suppliers and third parties if it's a good story and relevant to our readers.
How can PROs help with your editorial content?
Information could be product, seasonal or personality-led, but stories always have to relate back to food and the core Somerfield brand values.
What are the lead times for supplying information for news and features?
The earlier we are in the planning process, the greater opportunity for inclusion. The key period is four to six weeks prior to publication date.