Magazine sales suffer from the hard cell

 A customer pays at a register with a smartphone application in December at a Auchan supermarket in northern France.

Story highlights

  • Customers using mobile phone rather than browsing magazines at point-of-sale displays
  • Single-copy magazine sales in U.S. fell 9.5% to 26.7M in 2012 from previous year
  • U.S. magazine executive call the habit "mobile blinder"

It is a scene playing out in supermarkets across the world: a consumer waits to pay and, instead of browsing the magazines and chewing gum displayed alongside, she pulls out her mobile phone for a quick digital distraction.

US magazine executives call the habit the "mobile blinder" after the vision-narrowing headgear worn by racehorses, and say the trend is wreaking havoc on the industry.

Data released on Thursday show a big decline in single-copy sales of US magazines at newsstands and retail outlets, amid increased digital competition and reduced retail space. Single-copy sales fell 9.5 per cent to about 26.7m in 2012 from the previous year, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. That is about half the 52.9m magazines sold on newsstands a decade ago.

The trend is even more pronounced for the women's, fashion, sex and celebrity gossip titles prominent displayed in supermarket and drugstore checkout aisles. Cosmopolitan, which has the highest single-copy sales of all US magazines, saw single-copy sales plunge 18.5 per cent to 1.2m in the second half of 2012. People, In Touch Weekly, US Weekly, Glamour and Star Magazine all reported double-digit declines in single-copy sales for the period.

"We do find a number of people, if stalled for a minute, will steal a look at their email or news feed," said David Carey, president of Hearst Magazines, which publishes Cosmopolitan and 19 other magazine titles in the US. "Everyone that has products at checkouts has to battle for consumer attention."

Chewing gum and other impulse buys are facing the same "mobile blinder".

"Just think about your own behaviour. Even when you walk up to pay, you barely look up," said Bonin Bough, vice-president of global media and consumer engagement at Mondelez, which sells Trident, Chicklets and Stride chewing gums.

Publishers are trying to combat "mobile blinders" by jazzing up their print magazine covers with attention-grabbing digital features and placing copies in different areas of a store. Cosmopolitan put a digital QR code on its September cover, tempting consumers to scan the code each day for a surprise deal.

Hearst also recently conducted a promotion with Diet Coke to feature Cosmopolitan beside it in stores.

Mondelez, meanwhile, is trying to capture shoppers' attention on mobile phones by launching marketing promotions with location-enabled mobile applications, including Waze, In Market and Kiip.

"Studies show that devices are impacting impulse purchases and in some cases even have the power to influence," Mr Bough said.

Single-copy sales are considered a pulse of health for the magazine industry because they best reflect consumer demand. Publishers are not able to prop up the numbers, as they can with subscription figures by offering cheap deals.

A portion of the decline is offset by an uptick in digital subscriptions. The average number of digital magazines sold more than doubled in the second half of 2012 compared with the same period the previous year.

But while growing quickly, the 7.9m digital editions were just 2.4 per cent of the industry's total average circulation. Total paid and verified circulation for US magazines in the second half of the year was flat, down 0.3 per cent.

The news comes amid another blow to the print magazine business. The US Postal Service announced on Wednesday that it was ending first-class mail delivery service on Saturdays.