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.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.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?)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). 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. 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, which he established in 1998. John works as a comics and magazine editor, writer, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. He is currently editor of Star Trek Explorer, published by Titan – his third tour of duty on the title originally titled Star Trek Magazine.
Working in British comics publishing since the 1980s, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Babylon 5 Magazine, and more. 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 “Pilgrim: Secrets and Lies” for B7 Comics; “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood.