The ABC audit of magazine circulation figures for the first half of the year were greeted by the clamour of warning bells for news retailers and publishers alike. While not exactly a death knell, the alarms were sounding for a sector that is teetering under the weight of its challenges, both from online rivals and from changing public tastes.
While the overall market could best be described as flat over the period, the jaw-dropping statistics came from the established big sellers, many of which saw their news stand sales tumble.
What's happening is that the top titles are losing out to more specialised, targeted publications and to an increasing extent to electronic competitors - many of which are versions of their own brands. It's not that the best-known mastheads are going to disappear - not the fleet-footed ones, at least - but publishers are converting what were once exclusively paper-based titles into multi-channel brands. They're not going to desert the printed word for a while yet, because that's where most of the advertising revenue still lies, but this year the news stand is the least exciting place to be selling your magazine.
Nowhere is the pattern more marked than in the men's market, where FHM, Loaded and Maxim have all lost more than a quarter of their news stand sales over the last year. It's not hard to see where the readers are going; digital-only title Monkey, which is free to registered online users, has 268,000 readers. Nuts.co.uk, the internet spin-off of the lad's mag, now boasts 631,467 unique users, while the printed version saw a 9.8% year-on-year fall.
Nuts is perhaps the best example of a brand which is quietly sidestepping the retailer; as well as the web version, NutsTV goes live this month, podcasts are sold through iTunes and there's the off-portal mobile channel. But it is still ruling the men's weeklies market and selling more in a week than FHM does in a month.
So what does the trend mean for retailers? It rather depends who you ask.
The Periodical Publishers' Association (PPA) says that magazines are, in fact, holding their own, and points out that although sales volumes may be down, consumer expenditure for the period actually increased, by 1.6%.
PPA chief executive Ian Locks admits it's been a tough 12 months for consumer publishers, but says: "Despite the huge competition with online media for consumer spend and leisure time, magazines are holding up amazingly well as a medium."
But it's increased choice and constant refreshment of the offer that's keeping the sector afloat. "The launch rate of new titles remains at more than one a day, challenging the place of those previously established in the market place and keeping the market highly competitive but working well for consumers by catching changing styles, moods and interests," Locks adds.
Sylvia Auton, chief executive of publisher IPC, which shot to the top of the women's fashion magazine sector with its new launch Look, agrees. "While it's clear that remorseless year-on-year growth is no longer a realistic ambition for any publisher, brilliantly conceived and skillfully executed new launches will always find a big audience," she says.
But she also reveals that the company's future lies "beyond print", with multi-platform growth now at the heart of its business strategy.
Future, the special-interest publisher, finds plenty to be optimistic about if you target the right readers. "Large increases for magazines like Xbox 360 and Health & Fitness demonstrate how we succeed in communicating directly with passionate enthusiasts," says UK chief executive Robert Price. But again there's a warning for retailers - Price mentions a growing web portfolio, with further launches planned for later this year.
So while the publishers are talking the talk, there's an undercurrent of unrest - no more so than at Emap, publisher of FHM, Heat and Grazia, which is inviting offers for all or parts of its business.
Adrian Calver, Spar's category manager for news, says retailers need to pay more attention to their range in order to stay ahead of the game. "It's not just a question of more titles, it's about offering the right titles supported with innovative promotions and good availability from the supply chain," he says. "Getting this mix right is our key aim and it will deliver results."
It looks like the titles you could once rely on to earn their space on your shelves are no longer the bankers you thought they were. Where once you had one safe bet, you might need two or three facings to generate the same level of sales. And it's more important than ever that you get slow sellers off the shelf, to make room for a few new launches.
You will also need to be absolutely sure that the magazine range you're stocking is right for your area. Your wholesaler should know a thing or two about this, and it may be that the unexpected and unknown titles in your tote boxes are there for a reason and deserve a chance to catch the customer's eye.
This may mean spending a bit more time and effort on the magazine racks than you have in the past, simply to generate the same return. But if that sounds like running to stand still, it's worth bearing in mind that magazine retail sales value in the UK is still about the £2bn a year mark, and that the average shopper who comes into your store for magazines spends £6.86 before they leave. There's plenty of life in the category yet.
John Lennon says the one-size-fits-none supply chain has to go
Many supply chains have changed and developed over the past few years in a dynamic and fast-moving retail universe. The relationship between wholesalers and retailers is changing, with the fixed contracts of the past evolving into longer-term, more collaborative partnerships. Today's overriding concern is balancing greater consumer choice with a lower cost-base and an efficient supply chain.
Yep, you're right, the current news industry supply chain doesn't fit this model. But it could soon change.
Late autumn will see the OFT reporting on both the reviews that it is currently undertaking: the probe into vertical agreements between publishers and wholesalers, and the industry Code of Practice. Hopefully, it will liberate the industry from its monopolistic supply chain. We have unnecessary and high carriage charges, a level of wholesale service that the OFT notes is poor and falling, and an allocation system that is unbelievably inefficient; 50% of monthly magazines are wasted, and a third of weeklies.
One thing is certain: the 'one-size-fits-all' monopoly is a 'one-size-fits-none' situation.
So should retailers fear change? No. This is a product that publishers want on your shelves, you want to sell and that the consumer wants to buy. If we see the opening up of an out-of-date, inefficient and wasteful supply chain, to use a lyrical quote, 'things can only get better'.
John Lennon is managing director of the Association of News Retailers (ANR)