Supermarkets may be best known for groceries but their publications are quietly gaining increasing prominence. Forget GQ and Marie Claire, when it comes to shelf-busting circulations, their instore magazines are some of the most widely read. According to a recent Mintel survey, they're seen by almost half of all adults. Indeed, three of them are in the top 10 highest circulating magazines in the UK. Safeway Magazine is the biggest at number five, producing 1,757,190 copies, while Asda Magazine is in seventh place with 1,519,740 copies and Somerfield Magazine is at number nine with 1,362,143 copies (ABC June 2002).
Asda is already topping these figures and has just put its print run up from 1.7 million copies to more than 2 million. The chain's head of publishing Rachel Harling says it may rise even further.
"We want as many people as possible to read it, which means we are funding it more and printing more."
No self-respecting multiple is without a glossy publication today and their profiles have been rising steadily. According to the Association of Publishing Agencies, the slim, lacklustre magazines of a few years ago that did no more than highlight special offers, have been replaced by thick glossies staffed by professional journalists writing copy to rival the women's weeklies.
Most of the supermarkets get third parties to bring out their titles - they pay a fee to a contract publisher which produces the magazine, sells advertising and takes a percentage of the profits.
And the fact that they are free has not detracted from their worth in shoppers' eyes (only Sainsbury and Waitrose charge a cover price). Most contain a lot of plugs for products, but the APA believes consumers prefer the magazines to other forms of marketing.
Asda's Harling says the magazine is a reward for loyal shoppers as well as a chance to showcase products for Asda and its suppliers. In addition it is a valuable marketing tool which helps build a relationship with consumers. She adds: "The magazine is something customers look forward to and enjoy they even ask staff when the next issue is out."
The retailers are happy to employ a professional contract publisher because the publications not only generate decent revenue from manufacturers' advertising more than £6m worth was generated by Safeway Magazine in one year alone but their readers are also more likely to buy products from the store. The APA says that 65% have read advertisements for new products and been motivated to buy.
"The publications are more focused now and work much harder. The supermarkets are set on getting an increased share of basket or sales uplift," says APA director Hilary Weaver. "For example,when Waitrose featured a particular mushroom, its sales rose 240%."
She believes advertisements provide a mutual endorsement for supplier and retailer and give titles the look and feel of a consumer publication. "Suppliers can piggyback on the relationships that retailers have built up."
Safeway says 56% of its magazine readers have bought something in store as a result of reading the magazine, while 66% have tried something new after reading the magazine.
Asda claims 56% of Asda Magazine readers have bought something as a direct result of looking at the publication.
It offers tailor-made promotional packages to suppliers. "Revenue targets are always met," says Harling. "Most of our advertisers are repeating adverts each month. They have a captive market and it works for them."
It is an even rosier picture at Sainsbury's Magazine where 91% of readers report buying an item after seeing it featured. The chain says advertisements are a big part of the magazine's revenue. In addition, the coupons are so popular among manufacturers that there is a waiting list, says Dorcas Jamieson, marketing director of the magazine's publisher New Crane Publishing.
Jamieson is proud of the coupons' 8%-9% redemption rate and says these and other features can be linked to promotions in store.
Interestingly, the Delia Smith effect is not confined to television when the famous chef's recipes are included in the magazine, sales of ingredients go up.
Sainsbury charges £1 for the magazine, and Jamieson says its regular readers of foodies, older people and the health-conscious are undeterred by the cover charge. This could be due to its editorial independence. "It is not a vehicle to promote every product in Sainsbury."
At Tesco, return on investment in the Tesco Baby Club scheme and magazine is measured through incremental sales uplift in relevant products, and tracking is monitored through members' use of their Clubcard. The scheme's success is evident by the fact that Tesco dominates the mother and baby market with a 23.9% market share and captures 37% of new parents in the UK each year.
Weaver says retailers such as Tesco use loyalty data alongside the magazine to reinforce relationships with customers. The chain's sophisticated programme particularly segments customers and provides specific magazines for them, such as Your Toddler and Your Pregnancy, which, she says, emphasises the sense of belonging. "It's a guaranteed win in terms of developing the relationship in store."And it's a focus she expects to see in other chains in the future.
Integral part of a relationship
Sainsbury, for one, is considering linking its magazine into loyalty scheme data. Jamieson says: "Using more links is something we're looking at it would make perfect sense for us to support it."
Safeway kept its magazine although it ditched the ABC loyalty card, and obviously gets value from the publication. According to National Readership Survey figures, the magazine reaches 39% of regular Safeway shoppers and independent research concluded it was "an integral part of the relationship with Safeway".
It is in this kind of relationship with customers that Waitrose excels. Its more exclusive Food Illustrated reflects the chain's foodie image and recently won the APA award for the most effective consumer publication in the retail industry, with judges describing it as a "wonderful piece of brand building". And customers are happy to pay £2 for what is a meaty and stylish read although 70% of the 245,000 copies are given as a perk to account holders. Sarah Williams, group account director of publisher John Brown Citrus, says all the costs are covered by advertising no mean feat. "Everyone has different aims and a different formula for producing magazines, but we think it's a huge achievement; the free magazines can never hope to recoup the costs of printing and paper."