Early in February, Cosmopolitan shipped an advance copy of its March issue to the magazine buyer for Winn-Dixie supermarkets. On Feb. 12, the buyer e-mailed the company’s 1,186 stores saying the chain wouldn’t carry the issue because it “contains material that we thought would be objectionable to many of our customers.”
The preview, and subsequent ban, were nothing out of the ordinary at Winn-Dixie Stores Inc., which recently has become more aggressive about getting advance looks at some of the magazines it sells. “We serve a broad spectrum of customers, and we don’t want to offend them,” explains G.E. Clerc Jr., a spokesman for Winn-Dixie, based in Jacksonville, Fla.
Mr. Clerc won’t say why Cosmopolitan, the nation’s best-selling monthly magazine in terms of newsstand sales, was banned in March. But Chris Butler, a top circulation executive at Cosmopolitan publisher Hearst Corp., says he assumes the problem was a cover headline that included the words “His & Her Orgasms.”
Winn-Dixie’s emerging role as advance arbiter of magazine content is echoed at other supermarkets and big discount chains, which together control 55% of single-copy sales of U.S. magazines. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the biggest U.S. magazine seller with about 9% of single-copy sales, is among those that make early judgments about which titles to carry each week.
In early April, the magazine buyer for Wal-Mart’s 2,700 stores banned the June-July issue of Vibe, a magazine that focuses on rap music and urban culture, after viewing an early print of its cover and deeming it too risque. The first week in September, Wal-Mart asked the publisher of People magazine for a detailed description of its forthcoming issue on the crash that killed Princes Diana. Time Warner Inc., which publishes People, declined.
Retailers have long played a role in policing content by refusing to carry sexually explicit magazines or pulling particular issues off the racks in response to customer complaints. But publishers say the more-systematic effort to screen magazines in advance is a relatively new, and expanding, phenomenon. Coming on top of some advertisers’ attempts to get advance notice of provocative articles, the retailers’ initiative places additional pressure on publishers to avoid giving offense.
Though the retailers’ concerns often involve nudity or lewd language, magazines have also been challenged as a result of articles on controversial subjects such as abortion, homosexuality and religion, retailers say.
Frank Lalli, president of the American Society of Magazine Editors and managing editor of Money magazine, says he believes publishers shouldn’t give previews to retailers. As with advertisers, he says, “When you give them a look, there is the potential that people outside the magazine will say, `I have a solution. Drop that cover. Change the story.'”
But publishers, while decrying interference, are in a difficult spot because of big retailers’ dominance of nonsubscription sales. When first asked about providing advance copies, Hearst’s Mr. Butler says, “Our policy is straightforward. We have a policy of not giving out advance copies to anyone.”
However, Mr. Butler later acknowledges that chain-store magazine buyers frequently ask for advance copies in telephone calls to Hearst employees — and that the company sometimes provides them. “We only do it in the rarest conditions,” he says. If Hearst didn’t provide advance copies, he adds, retailers would obtain them almost as quickly from wholesale distributors.
The experience at Vibe, which is mostly owned by Miller Publishing Group, suggests how publishers are increasingly anticipating retail chains’ concerns. Dana Sacher, the magazine’s circulation director, says she knew big retailers might have problems with Vibe’s June-July cover, featuring a nearly nude photograph of singer Toni Braxton. So the magazine sent the cover to Wal-Mart’s buyer in early April, more than a week before going to press. As Ms. Sacher expected, Wal-Mart declined to sell the issue.
So why did Vibe turn over the cover? Ms. Sacher says big retailers make it clear they expect such warnings. “If you don’t let them know in advance, they will delist the title and never carry it again,” she says.
“This way,” Ms. Sacher adds, “they don’t carry one issue, but they might carry the next one.” Also, she says, the magazine avoids the costs of printing and shipping copies to stores that aren’t going to sell them.
Thus far, it appears that no national retailer has created written guidelines regarding advance viewings. Magazine buyers sometimes advise publishers that such previews are expected, and other times rely on publishing executives like Ms. Sacher to take the initiative when they think an issue might be objectionable. As Winn-Dixie’s Mr. Clerc puts it, “They know when they are getting close to too far.”
Mr. Clerc says most of the publishers that send advance copies have had run-ins with the chain over previous issues. “If the publisher of a magazine that we have had trouble with in the past is doing something they know we’ll be sensitive to, they will in many instances bring it to our attention,” he says.
Still, for publishers it’s a difficult balancing act. Tipping off a retailer occasionally about a future issue may engender goodwill, but frequent warnings about spicy content can signal to the magazine buyer that the title is too hot to handle. “If it happens all the time, we won’t sell the magazine,” Mr. Clerc says.
Chain-store executives say their efforts simply reflect the wishes of many of their customers, who often have children in tow and who complain to store managers about magazine covers they consider indecent. William Johnson, the manager of Wal-Mart’s outlet in Asheville, N.C., says he gets up to 10 complaints about magazines every week. He says many customers tell him they object on moral grounds to nudity and sexually explicit themes.
Officials at Kroger Co., a Cincinnati-based chain of roughly 1,300 supermarkets, would prefer to “avoid interposing our judgments,” says spokesman Paul Bernish. But he says retailers like Kroger have little choice because customer complaints are “coming up more and more.”
Retailers say this is so because magazines are becoming increasingly raunchy as competition for readers intensifies. “The publishers want to take it right up to the line to maximize their sales,” says Daniel Zvonek, a spokesman for American Stores Co., the Salt Lake City owner of Acme Markets, Jewell Food Stores and Lucky Stores. “The message being sent to publishers is that people won’t accept that. Publishers need to understand that.”
Theoretically, retailers have a lot to lose if they decline to carry a hot-selling magazine, because profit margins for big retailers are high-about 30-35% of the cover price, according to John Harrington, publisher of the New Single Copy, a newsletter about magazine distribution. On the other hand, magazines make up just a tiny portion of the total sales of a Wal-Mart or Winn-Dixie, and retailers believe they have more to lose if they offend loyal customers by selling magazines that some might find objectionable.
Demands for early information about future issues became particularly intense immediately after Princess Diana’s death — and focused more on tabloid newspapers than on magazines. Southland Corp., which operates, licenses and franchises about 5,400 7-Eleven outlets in the U.S., “had conversations with all of the big tabloids” in advance of their publishing dates, says spokeswoman Margaret Chabris. “They all confirmed with us that they wouldn’t be running any pictures of the crash.”
Before the accident, Winn-Dixie was the only retailer receiving advance copies of the National Enquirer and the Star from their publisher, American Media Inc., a spokesman for the Lantana, Fla., publisher says. But since then, many other chains have told the company that they will stop carrying the tabloids if they don’t receive early copies.
The press runs for the National Enquirer and the Star both start late Wednesday and continue through Thursday; the magazines go on sale in most supermarkets on the following Monday or Tuesday. The American Media spokesman says retail executives at about 50 chains now receive advance copies on Thursday or Friday, giving them plenty of time to review the publications and, if they choose, halt shipments to their stores.
Many times, of course, a retailer that reviews a magazine in advance decides to carry it, despite racy photos or controversial articles. Walgreen Co., with 2,363 drugstores in 34 states, is among the chains that encourage magazines to submit early copies of potentially offensive issues. Michael Polzin, a spokesman for the Deerfield, Ill., company, says Cosmopolitan sent an advance copy of its September 1996 issue “that they thought we might have a problem with, but we decided to stock it anyway.”
Even so, it was less than a clear victory for Cosmopolitan: Walgreen’s magazine buyer sent an e-mail to all of the chain’s store managers warning them about the issue and telling them to feel free to pull it off their shelves.
Walgreen, like many other retailers, also encourages wholesale distributors to send warnings about potentially troublesome magazines. “If the distributor comes across something, he calls our buyers” and will often send the questionable material by fax, Mr. Polzin says. “We don’t have written guidelines that we send to distributors, but they know what we are concerned about.”
Moreover, many chains encourage individual store managers to drop magazines on their own and to pass along customer complaints to headquarters. Teresa Stanton, the manager of Wal-Mart’s store in Cheraw, S.C., says she tries to look at the cover of every magazine before it is displayed in her store. “Every other week I pull something off the shelf that I don’t think is of Wal-Mart quality,” she says.
Albertson’s Inc., a chain of 854 supermarkets spanning 20 states, goes further than most other retailers by conducting a systematic review of all magazines before they are displayed in any of its stores.
Last year, Albertson’s, based in Boise, Idaho, declined to carry Cosmopolitan’s September issue and Harper’s Bazaar’s August issue, says Jenny Enochson, a company spokeswoman. The cover of Harper’s Bazaar featured a woman wearing a sheer blouse. Cosmopolitan’s cover showed plenty of cleavage and included a headline for an article with a homosexual theme: “Coming Out. Why I Had to Leave My Husband for Another Woman.”
From a publisher’s standpoint, the impact can be devastating if a large number of retailers stop carrying a magazine. Penthouse sold an average of 2.4 million newsstand copies and Playboy sold 1.3 million before then-Attorney General Edwin Meese’s 1986 antipornography campaign induced almost every supermarket and convenience-store chain to stop carrying both publications. Partly because of this — but also because of the growth of the adult-home-video market and increasing competition from other men’s magazines — newsstand sales for each magazine now average less than 600,000.
While some publishers have moved quickly to accommodate retailers’ requests for advance copies, Time Warner is one company that has balked. After Wal-Mart sought previews of People’s Diana issue and Time Warner refused, the giant discount chain decided to carry it anyway; the issue didn’t include any pictures of the crash.
Officials at Time Inc., Time Warner’s magazine unit, say honoring Wal-Mart’s request would have created a dangerous precedent. “When you start giving advance looks to either advertisers or retailers you are creating opportunities for censorship,” says Norman Pearlstine, Time Inc.’s editor in chief.
Some retailers say their ultimate goal is, indeed, to encourage magazines to deliver less sex and controversy. That’s why, these retailers say, they explain to publishers why they didn’t carry a particular issue. “We let them know when we don’t carry their magazine — and we let them know why,” Winn-Dixie’s Mr. Clerc says. “We would prefer that their publications didn’t offend people.”
Walgreen’s Mr. Polzin suggests that publishers appreciate input from retailers: “They want to know why we pulled their magazine because they don’t want to lose newsstand sales.”
Publishers deny this. Vibe’s Ms. Sacher, for one, scoffs at the notion that Vibe would make editorial changes because of retailer comments. She says Wal-Mart didn’t suggest that the magazine change its June-July cover. But if it had, she adds the magazine wouldn’t have done so: “We’d be a much different magazine if we let Wal-Mart tell us what to do.”
Hearst’s Mr. Butler also says his company’s magazine editors are never asked by Hearst executives to alter editorial content because of retailers’ concerns. But he adds that editors themselves have to make sure their magazines aren’t dropped by too many outlets.
“We could sell more magazines” by being more provocative, Mr. Butler says, “but that would risk our long-term partnership with retailers. The editor of Cosmo has to be incredibly attuned to the newsstand marketplace.”