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With its comfy chairs and coffee shop, Borders encourages its customers to stay a while and browse. The US chain is primarily a book retailer, but has also set out its stall as a range retailer of magazines. Andrea Kirkby talks to Borders’ Maxine Lister about their approach to magazine sales.

By Andrea Kirkby

Borders entered the UK market eight years ago and, says Nicola Rowe, director of circulation at the PPA, "When they arrived, it was a breath of fresh air."

With their in-store coffee shops, longer opening hours and relaxed feel, Borders’ outlets were different from anything else on the high street. While other retailers have tried to catch up, Borders has continued to forge ahead. The US-owned group now has 42 stores in the UK and Ireland, and another two will open this year.

Although Borders is primarily known as a bookshop (with 7.5 percent market share in the book market), it’s also a significant magazine retailer. Periodicals make up 10 percent of its overall sales according to Max Lister, magazine buyer at Borders. That makes it a significant player in the sector, though not the biggest.

One of the reasons is the store’s refreshing atmosphere and imaginative events. Max Lister says the retail environment means customers stay in the shop longer; "We have a 45 minute average browsing time – that’s quite long compared to other retailers." Roger Williams, circulation director with Hello! magazine, says "it’s a relaxed atmosphere, you can indulge yourself a bit" - and magazines are often one of the indulgences.

But Borders has set out specifically to capture the magazine market. Max Lister says, "We see magazines as a key part of the business – it’s not just an add-on."

Borders sites its magazines prominently, often towards the front of the store – though this varies depending on the store. Particularly where branches are sited in listed buildings, fixtures may need to be planned to fit the site. Borders also has dedicated staff for the magazine department. Most stores have a 24 unit magazine fixture – Borders stores tend to be much bigger than high street competitors, so space can be found for this amount of shelf space.

Range retailer

Borders has 200,000 book titles at each branch, and 2-3,000 magazines. Max Lister says, "Our typical magazine range is 2,400 titles – we are a range retailer, that’s the biggest thing we want to shout about."

That compares with 900-1500 at most high street WH Smith outlets, and fewer than 600 titles at Tesco superstores (less at Tesco Metro), so it really is a key differentiator for Borders. Max says the aim is to be a destination retailer for magazines - "People saying ‘Borders will have it’, that’s what we want."

Nicola Rowe believes Borders’ range makes it a particularly interesting outlet for the more specialised titles and for smaller publishers. She says, "Where Borders adds value is in the breadth of the range. So there is an opportunity to provide more specialist titles within that range."

Borders doesn't just have a wide range, it has some interesting specialities to offer, too. Roger Williams points out that, in addition to carrying some American titles which are exclusive to Borders UK, it carries Hola! magazine – the Spanish version of Hello! The imported magazines give the range a distinctively different twist.

Max Lister says art and photographic titles sell particularly well – and there are lots of other niches within the range where Borders can be a significant distributor for its publishers. The top titles obviously do include some of the women’s weeklies, but, she says, there are some major differences from other retailers’ top lists.

Eclectic mix

For instance, some of the more mainstream weeklies like Take a Break don't do as well as in other high street outlets or in supermarkets. On the other hand, "in our top 20 we’ve got New Scientist, Private Eye and Wallpaper magazine – it’s an eclectic mix." And aspirational titles tend to sell well through Borders.

But the chain doesn't deliver only for specialist titles. You can't get much more mass market than Hello!, but none the less Roger Williams sees Borders as an important channel for his magazine. The relatively small size of the chain – 42 stores, against WH Smith’s 542 high street branches – means it’s not in his top ten, but, he says, Borders delivers well in terms of copy sales per store.

Their real importance, for him, is as a means of addressing higher income demographics, in the same way that Waitrose and M&S deliver such customers. "They’re not a big player in terms of copies," he says, "but they’re a retailer where we want to be seen."

There is only one rule for publishers who want to work with Borders. Every new title has to have a distributor that Borders already works with. Apart from that, Max Lister says, "The door is open to all – distributors, wholesale, publishers, we’ll talk to all of them."

But they do say ‘no’

But she is quick to correct the perception that, because it has a big range, Borders will take anything. "We refuse an awful lot of titles," she says. New titles have to bring something to the party – whether it’s editorial or production quality, or exclusives or special promotions. In particular, Borders will no longer accept launch copies unless the publisher is prepared to promote the magazine strongly with the store.

Borders scores highly on promotions, particularly compared to some of the supermarkets. Promotions are run on a fortnightly basis and include a number of opportunities - window banners, front of store units (that is, not in the magazine section), category placements (coloured perspex boxes within the shelf), end caps and link saves. Time magazine, for instance, is currently being offered with £2 off any book bought in store (the magazine’s cover price is £2.75), and this is being supported by a window banner. Cross promotions with books, if targeted cleverly, can work extremely well.

Borders also runs an email newsletter, which goes to 400,000 customers and includes money off promotions.

Nicola Rowe thinks Borders is one of the more active promoters among retailers. "Publishers find them very approachable," she says, "and they’re willing to do different kinds of promotion. And they do score some points over much of their competition in terms of the attractive retail environment."

But, she says, because Borders are used to dealing with book publishers, rather than periodicals, their expectations are high. It’s easy to imagine that a store that’s willing to stay open to midnight for Harry Potter launches might want its publishers to commit a similar amount of effort to magazine promotion. "They feel we [magazine publishers] could do a bit more in terms of in-store activity, a bit of theatre and razzmatazz maybe."

Obviously publishers need to use some imagination to come up with the right promotion. Roger Williams says he has been looking for the right way to promote Hello! with Borders for some time, but it’s only the 1,000th issue – coming up later this year – that gave him the opportunity. He’ll be running a window poster promotion with the store, and believes the chain’s prominent high street locations – particularly in London – give him the best shopfront he could get for his magazine.

Supply problems

Max Lister obviously believes magazines can deliver growth for Borders. But she admits there is one downside to the sector - distribution is still a nightmare. "Our biggest issue at the moment is allocation – getting the copies," she says. The fragmented supply chain makes it particularly difficult, by comparison with book supply.

She thinks it’s getting worse. "It’s very frustrating because you’re chasing your tail all the time," she complains – and it’s particularly frustrating when, as has happened a few times, a publisher is paying to promote a magazine but the stores don't get any copies to sell. This problem isn't unique to Borders, but it’s refreshing to find someone so upfront about it.

Trouble ahead?

Borders is committed to magazines; it’s seeing good sales growth from the area and it should be a target outlet for any periodical publisher. But there is one cloud on the horizon; the US parent company has put its non-US branches up for sale.

Nicola Rowe worries that this will affect the chain’s strategy. "They were looking to expand, but who knows what will happen with the sell-off?" she asks.

Max Lister certainly doesn't see any difference right now. She stresses that the two planned store openings this year are still set to go ahead, and "it’s business as usual for us. We are certainly not closing stores."

UK publishers must hope that the business will continue to flourish – perhaps under new ownership. Because there’s no doubt that Borders is one of the more interesting retail channels for magazines – and particularly for the smaller circulation, specialised titles.