the latest Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) figures reveal what most magazine retailers already know - that these are tough times to be a newsagent, and even tougher times to be a publisher.

However, it's debatable whether the average retailer will feel much sympathy with the publishers, whose determination to put copies on shelves at any cost creates more headaches than opportunities at store level. Whatever they're doing, it's not enough: of titles that were available throughout the year, UK news stand sales fell by 4.7% between July and December, and are down 9.3% year-on-year, a steep decline even by recent standards.

Battered by the general economic squeeze, the market is desperately in need of an injection of both cash and confidence at a time when it's least likely to get either. One aspect of the last year has been the almost total lack of big-name launches, so we are missing the excitement of a high-profile advertising campaign, and the stimulating kick in the pants that new blood gives to the existing players.

Of the 50 best-selling magazines in reporting ABC figures for July-December 2008, only nine recorded an increase in circulation, and only three of those - step forward Woman & Home, Slimming World and Men's Health - could boast more than 3% year-on-year growth.

In contrast, OK! (-21.2%), Heat (-12.7%), Pick Me Up (-12.5%) and Best (-10.3%) all took hefty circulation tumbles over the year, but none fell so hard as FHM's spectacular 22.2% decline.

Outside the Top 50 there are signs of promise, with special interest and niche hobby titles holding up better. BBC Magazines' Easy Cook showed a 20.4% year-on-year increase in circulation, and Golf World, Cycling Plus and Anglers Mail achieved substantial growth on last year's figures with increases of 19.2%, 11.1% and 7.0% respectively. Runner's World increased by 6.6%.

Ironically, the economic situation has increased interest in financial and business affairs, and The Economist (up 3.1%), MoneyWeek (16.6%) and What Investment (13.1%) all bounced back. But it's less good for housing and home renovation titles, and women's special interest magazines such as health and beauty titles, which have become an expensive luxury for some.

The men's lifestyle market, reeling under the double assault of the internet and free titles like Shortlist, saw double-digit year-on-year declines for Maxim, Nuts and Loaded. But if lads' mags' days are numbered, positive results for GQ, Men's Health, Men's Fitness and Healthy for Men suggest there's an older male audience to be targeted.

What all this means for retailers is that those who build their range around the current top sellers will have to get used to slow but steady decline. Alternatively, the mix of knowledge of the customer and relentless promotion can be used to make the fixture pay its way.

Hobby magazines remain robust, so find out what your regulars do in their spare time. Don't rely on your display to sell for you: use shelf barkers and hot spots to highlight titles you feel will appeal more than the standard celebrity and TV fare; and promote a shop save scheme so customers know they can always come in for the title they want.

Don't forget there is plenty of help available - not only from your news wholesaler, but also from initiatives such as Palmer & Harvey's Plus News, Booker's news group and various symbol groups' own internal support.

Faced with a category where stagnation is starting to look like success, now might be a good time to take up the offer of expert guidance.

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