The Rotten State of Newsagents – Is it any Wonder Publishers Are Pushing Digital?

When it comes to declining newspaper, comic and magazine sales, one major issue seems to get scant attention in any of the publishing trade journals I read – the way publishers product is treated at point of sale by newsagents.

Frankly, in many cases, it’s appalling, particularly in many high street WHSmith. But there seems be some reluctance by publishers and their distributors to call them out on it – perhaps in fear WHSmith might take unwarranted revenge on a publisher that puts their head above the parapet, and drop their titles.

The children's comic shelves in WHSmith Lancaster on Friday 29th April 2016. Photo: John Freeman

The children’s comic shelves in WHSmith Lancaster on Friday 29th April 2016. Photo: John Freeman

First, a bit of context. There’s no doubt that there are a huge number of titles fighting for shelf space in your local newsagent, and as a consequence, demand for that space has been seen as a valuable commodity by WHSmith and the separate company dealing with most distribution into UK mainland newsagents, Connect (previously known as Smiths News, which is not owned bt WHS). I get that, although the amounts involved seem disproportionate to what a publisher gets for that space, especially when you see how that product – especially in the children’s comics section – is maintained (or not, in the case of the WHSmith store above, where the rack is an impossible mess of titles, many or of eyeline for the potential buyers).

WHSmith also has a much wider range of titles to offer on its shelves. Supermarkets, by comparison, which command over 40 per cent of news stand sales in the UK, “cherry pick” the bestsellers. They also charge for space and it costs too much for titles such as the weekly 2000AD and Phoenix to have placement in them.

(The Phoenix has said this is why they’re only available in key high street WHSmith, and not those served by the separate WHSmith that serve airports and train stations).

The sale of magazines and newspapers is also perhaps a thankless task for smaller shops. Let’s not forget that every magazine worth its salt positively encourages readers to subscribe to the title in every issue, and point to their digital alternative if they have one. The newsagent is effectively selling products encouraging the customer to buy elsewhere, loosely akin, say, to Sainsbury’s stocking tins of baked beans emblazoned with a screamer announcing baked beans are cheaper in Tesco. So you can see why newsagents – and a big newsagent chain like WHSmith – might be a bit miffed when a publisher starts kicking up a fuss about the way their product is being treated.

WHSmith Lancaster's 'teen title' section, which includes 2000AD, Panini and Titan's superhero titles and Commando

WHSmith Lancaster’s ‘teen title’ section, which includes 2000AD, Panini and Titan’s superhero titles and Commando

But surely there comes a point where publishers really should kick up a fuss, when their titles are jammed so tightly on the rack it is near impossible  for a potential customer to find them – and when they are encouraged into promotions entirely inappropriate for the title? (WHSmith Lancaster is currently offering buyers of war comic Commando – a copy nowhere to be seen – a free chalk set).

Publishers used to be more uppity, of course. When they had better budgets, newspapers – national and local – had teams of staff patrolling newsagents, checking their titles were being displayed correctly. Those days are long gone, which is a shame when you consider they might spend at least £18,000 – £25,000 to get a new comic onto shelves, the sum charged for a launch that includes gaining a spot in most major WHSmith and key newsagents (which in many cases WHSmith control distribution to).

To be honest, I’m pretty stunned that publishers seem to be letting distributors and retailers get away with what they do. It’s not in their interest and neither, I’d argue, is it in the interest of WHSmith, whose management took the decision some years back in my key local store here in Lancaster to effectively half its shelf space educated to magazines – its ‘perishable’ sale items, with a short shelf life of a week in some cases – in favour of what I’d call non perishables – stationery, pens, cards etc.

This just seems a nonsense to me. If the Unique Appeal of your shop is that you sell magazines and newspapers, why make it harder to sell those items by bunching them up, making them impossible to find? (Did you actually see the copies of 2000AD on sale in the picture above?)

Martins, Kendal. Comics promoted in the window - as you'd perhaps expect for a 'Comics Town'. This picture was taken recently, well outside its Festival week.

Martins, Kendal. Comics promoted in the window – as you’d perhaps expect for a ‘Comics Town’. This picture was taken recently, well outside its Festival week.

It is entirely possible, even in a small store like this Martins in Kendal, to better promote the range of titles you have on offer – but sadly, it does seem many WHSmith seem disinclined to do so (WHSmith in Kendal has one of the most cramped displays for its comics I’ve ever seen).

Some of comics on sale in Sainsbury's Lancaster this weekend. All titles are front facing and clearly visible. It's a shame they don't sell 2000AD or Phoenix

Some of comics on sale in Sainsbury’s Lancaster this weekend. All titles are front facing and clearly visible. It’s a shame they don’t sell 2000AD or Phoenix

Supermarkets like Sainsbury’s and Booths might stock less of a range of titles, but there’s no doubt publishers are getting a better deal in terms of visibility – at least in some of them. Every title is clearly displayed and the store layout for titles has a logic to it that some WHSmith seem to lack.

Comics on sale in Booths, Poulton-le-Fylde. Even the smaller range gets better treatment than it does in some WH Smiths

Comics on sale in Booths, Poulton-le-Fylde. Even the smaller range gets better treatment than it does in some WHSmiths

Quite why WHSmith – which, along with distributors, is being paid such huge amounts for the ‘privilege’ of having shelf space – continues to treat both its customers and publishers so shabbily frankly amazes me. Why are they being allowed to get away with it? Is it no wonder magazine sales are so in decline if a customer simply can’t find the comic they’re looking for?

Is there a correlation between the point at which WHSmith took the decision to treat its most valuable part of its business in such an inexplicable manner and the decline in comic and magazine sales? (A decision which has clearly benefitted its stationery sales according to its most recent interim results – PDF link – but in the same period has meant only a 2% rise in Like For Like Sales?)

It would be wonderful to know, but questioning store policy – either directly with local management or via the company’s social media presence – seems a fruitless task, based on both personal past experience and that of other comic fans.

Until that WHSmith gets its act together, I fear we’ll continue to see an overall sales decline for comics, magazines and newspapers – and the squeezing out of smaller publishers from newsagents shelves, no matter the individual appeal of a niche title might have if it got decent visibility unencumbered by financial demands that seem disproportionate to the potential reward.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some comics to move to a more obvious place on a certain newsagents’ shelf…

• Photos of WHSmith and Sainsbury’s used in this article were taken on Friday 29th April. Copyright John Freeman

We note that WHSmith is an entirely separate company to Conect, aka Smtihs News, which handles newspaper and magazine distribution to newsagents large and small across the UK. This article is primarily intended as comment on store presentation, not distribution


The founder of downthetubes, John works as a comics editor, writer, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing for over 30 years, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

Categories: 2000AD, British Comics, Creating Comics, downthetubes Comics News, Featured, Features

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13 replies

  1. Interesting article but some incorrect facts/typo. WHSmith does not control distributions as you mentioned, as if you had done your research their news wholesale arm was de merged a number of years ago and no longer owned by WHS.

    WHSmiths does not exist it is WHSmith, as I said a very entertaining and interesting article to read on a Saturday afternoon for a laugh.


    • Thanks for the feedback. I’ve made some corrections. This feature was primarily about stores and presentation, not the distribution of comics, but I’m aware that the original version conflated WHSmith and Smiths News, my apologies. Glad I gave you a laugh.

  2. The WHS at the Trafford Centre makes it almost impossible to look at magazines. Not only are they crammed together but the space between racks is too narrow. And they have oceans of open empty space as you enter the store. So I very rarely shop there.

  3. This article has drawn a lot of responses, but feedback from Mark Fletcher the Australian Newsagency blog rightfully calls me out on some points in this article, and I think some later amends may have addressed some of his concerns.

    “Freeman needs to look at why newsagents cram magazines into less and less space,” he notes. “Next, he needs to talk about how to address the issues to respect newsagents and publishers. His article misses some key facts.”

    I’d love to put some questions to WHSmiths. I’ll try to do better on that front.

    Mark also says:

    “I agree with what much of what Freeman has written about UK newsagents. Plenty of shops are tired and not up to current retail standards. However, part of the problem could be the return achieved from the category by retailers in the UK.”

    His most important point though, is well worth noting: “My experience with retailers is they invest based on the financial return.”

    You can read his article (and responses) here:

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