Given Tesco’s seemingly unstoppable success as a global retailer, it’s understandable it receives the occasional knocking in national newspapers: nobody likes a winner.
But were the cries of “censorship” after the multiple’s comments at the Periodical Publishers Association’s 2005 London conference on May 3-4 really justified?
The commotion kicked off when David Cooke, senior buying manager for newspapers and magazines, mentioned the retailer was shifting the entire category of men’s magazines to middle shelves, away from family titles.
He claimed it was responding to customers who were shocked by the racy covers of some of the lads mags.
Tesco claims its decision was driven by customer views. “Our desire is to accommodate all our customers, not to tell editors what is or is not on their cover,” it says.
Its stance has found what some might see as an unlikely ally: Dylan Jones, editor of men’s magazine GQ and chairman of the British Society of Magazine Editors.
“No one likes this sort of interference, least of all publishers,” says Jones. But he continues: “On the other hand, Tesco is being very specific about a section of the market that I happen to think is pretty tawdry.
“Publications such as Maxim, FHM and Loaded are tantamount to pornography. I think retailers should take more responsibility for what’s on-shelf.”
Jones says he would strongly object if he took his two children into a Tesco store and they were confronted with lewd magazine covers at eye level.
Nicki Hill, trade marketing director of children’s magazine publisher Egmont Magazines, takes a similar view. She points out that Tesco’s decision didn’t involve delisting publications, refusing to stock certain issues or even obscuring them, but simply moving them out of children’s way.
It was also a shrewd commercial move, she says. “If you look at the way people shop, there’s no reason why you would stock men’s magazines next to children’s magazines or within children’s line of sight.”
Hill sees nothing sinister in Tesco’s
argument that it has been motivated by customer feedback, and believes that it’s a win-win decision. Mums with young kids get what they want and readers of lads magazines get what they want. Publishers and retailers get to align products with the right target market.
But there is a danger that responding to consumer demand could mean responding to fringe groups with axes to grind.
Nina Link, president of the Magazine Publishers of America, reports on the storm brewing in the US. “Magnum, FHM, Stuff, Glamor, Cosmopolitan, Red Book and National Enquirer have had editions covered, pulled or banned,” says Link.
“Swimsuit editions, for example, have caused particularly strong supermarket reaction. A complaint from ‘our customers’ in the Bible-bashing southern states is enough to prompt a national reaction by Wal-Mart. While it is difficult to argue Wal-Mart is in breach of the First Amendment (the right to free speech), it is exercising huge pressure on publishers to produce titles to its specifications.”
It is easy to write off this sort of thing as only happening in America. But consumer group Which? says similar pressure groups exist in the UK.
Of course, responding to customer demand does not mean responding to the majority of customers. Would fair trade suppliers have become so successful if it weren’t for a vocal minority driving the issue forward?
The key, according to Ian Locks, chief executive of the PPA, is whether Tesco retains its self-confessed customer focus for future decisions it makes on newstrade sales. “The PPA argument has never been that major retailers set out to control or censor content - only that they might become in a position to do so,” says Locks.
“And if they are in a position to do so, will they never do it?”
He refers to columnist George Monbiot’s comments in a recent edition of The Guardian. “Try to picture a newspaper being sold beside the Tesco checkout with the headline ‘Tesco’s Bullying Tactics Exposed’,” says Monbiot.
Locks believes Tesco’s comments at the PPA conference did not approach that dilemma, but that it is certainly worth thinking about.