Publishing and Commerce: Is it Working?

by Emma Donnelly Red Hot Penny

Is the rise of publishers introducing ecommerce functionality to their digital platforms a waste of time and (lots of) money? Ruth Elliott, Digital Marketing & Brand Executive at Red Hot Penny looks at the pros, cons, failures and successes.

Traditional media forms such as newspapers and magazines have faced declining revenue and readership with more and more of their audience turning to the Internet for their news, shopping and entertainment. To find additional revenue and make up for the decline in print subscriptions and ad sales, many magazines are expanding their media platform to include being an ecommerce or marketplace platform.

But is it working? And is a successful future in store for the publishers taking the plunge into ecommerce?

There are divided views on whether magazines should venture into the ecommerce market or whether they should stick to what they know. To some, merging ecommerce features into a magazine’s editorial experience seems like a natural progression. How many times have you flipped through a magazine and seen an item mentioned or advertised that you’d like to buy? It’s this type of thinking that has inspired several publications to expand into the ecommerce arena.

WWD reported on this last year, quoting Time Inc. chairman and chief executive officer Joe Ripp:

“When a fashion magazine says: ‘This is what a star is wearing,’ and readers say: ‘I like the look. Where can I get that,’ and we don’t provide it to them, we have failed them. The reason [ecommerce] websites have done so well and grown so dramatically online is because they fill that need. In many respects, service magazines have failed because of the strict rule that you can’t sell what you refer to and get the products that we find so interesting.”

While other monthly print titles are fighting falling sales by slashing prices and adding free gifts, Time Inc.’s glossy design magazine, Wallpaper, has decided to create a new revenue stream by tapping into its international brand recognition – it has readers in 93 countries and 1.33 million Twitter followers. Wallpaper branched out to ecommerce by launching what people called “the Net-a-Porter of interiors”. Tony Chambers, the editor-in-chief of Wallpaper magazine, said “We have showcased the best in global design for more than 18 years. Now we’re offering our readers the opportunity to buy it.”

WallpaperSTORE offers items from around 150 brands and designers that have been carefully selected by the design bible’s team including Orée Artisans, Tom Dixon and Loewe. The store’s product categories range from homewares, lighting and textiles to travel accessories and personal electronics. Still in its first year, Wallpaper is yet to publish how successful their online store has been, but their growing brand directory and product categories hints that it is doing well.


Global publishing house Condé Nast will be relaunching later this year as a brand new ecommerce site with a London-based team hired from ASOS, Net-a-Porter, Google and more. Fashionista reported that 100 to 200 brands will be available for purchase through Vogue and GQ, before coming to the U.S. and other titles and markets around the world. Readers will be able to shop content through both the title’s site and, as well as by scanning images in print magazines.

It’s obvious that Condé Nast see this expansion as a worthwhile investment, and something they will continue to push money into. However, retailers are questioning if it will work.

WWD spoke to one retail executive who requested to stay anonymous:

“This is a business that is alien to a publishing company. It’s not going to work. It’s not their field of expertise. There are terrific obstacles. The corporation has to have a mentality to get this done. Have they hired someone who comes out of the retail industry? Logistics are a huge issue. They’ll be faced with free delivery. Inventory is a huge issue. They have to have good amounts of merchandise, and if it doesn’t sell, how do they get rid of it? Apparel returns online are high, you have to be able to sustain returns. Are they prepared to take markdowns, and liquidate? I don’t understand why they are getting into this. I don’t believe they can build enough volume to make it.”

Making money

As publishers dip — or dive — into the world of commerce, the first thing they must decide is which model they will follow. The three generally accepted paths are the affiliate model; revenue share, or true retail.

The affiliate model is the easiest and most used, but it’s also the least profitable. It entails linking to a retailer’s site from a publication’s one. Publishers typically receive only 4 to 5 percent of the revenue of each sale.

Revenue share is more profitable — sources estimated at least three to four times more — but riskier, as it entails a publisher partnering with a retailer through licensing, or developing revenue share deals on products sold. Publishers do not carry inventory, however, as they would in the third model, which is true retail. That version is the riskiest, as publishers would compete with the very brands and advertisers they feature, but at the same time it could potentially reap the greatest benefits.

Hearst’s Harper’s Bazaar USA was one of the first fashion magazines to try a revenue-share model by creating a marketplace, much like Amazon Marketplace, but on a smaller scale. In 2011, publisher Carol Smith approached editor in chief Glenda Bailey with the idea of making the magazine completely shoppable, and for customers to purchase through Bazaar. The duo created a business plan and with “a little bit of money from David Carey [Hearst Magazines president]” they launched ShopBazaar in October 2012, according to Smith, with Saks Fifth Avenue as a retail partner.

ShopBazaar wasn’t a success in the beginning, but Smith and Bailey eventually found a suitable revenue-share partner in Yoox and they negotiated partnerships independently with designers. They also set up a sponsored content business, in which Bazaar editors help create shoppable collections.


While countless publishers are struggling to drive revenue via online shopping, there’s a growing number of ecommerce companies moving in the opposite direction. Ecommerce giants ASOS and Net-a-Porter have recently introduced print publications to their loyal customers. Both etailers have found huge successes in launching their editorial departments, ultimately building their brand and customer relationships.

However, some magazine executives do not see Net-a-Porter’s ‘Porter’ as a true glossy. Duncan Edwards, president and CEO of Hearst Magazines International told WWD:

“Porter magazine is the version of the Sears magazine in some sense. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. It’s a communication tool. Retailers have always played in media. They have always been producing catalogues or some sort of owned-media communication with their consumers forever, that’s nothing new.”

Hearst does own a retail business that holds inventory through Elle Japan, but Edwards told WWD that the publisher would not duplicate that model in other markets, even though he noted that the business now makes money. “Retail is not an easy business to be in,” Edwards said. “One of the biggest players in the space, which is to Net-a-porter, is a break-even business.”

Hearst is speaking from experience. In 2011, the publisher’s Esquire magazine in America partnered with J.C. Penney Co. Inc. to form Clad, an ecommerce site that was owned by the retailer. Esquire produced magazine content and helped create editorial offerings on the site. After just three months in business, the struggling Clad was shuttered by Penney’s.

“Look, it’s completely understandable why all magazines have been talking about commerce for the last 10 years. We have the audience. We bring the audience,” Edwards offered. “It’s completely natural, but our view is to test and try. So far, we’ve found that it’s quite a challenging business — turning that business into a fulfilling business for the consumer and for us is a difficult job.”


As it stands, there are still mixed views on whether publishing and commerce can merge together seamlessly. But from looking at the evidence, magazines do have the capacity to introduce online shopping to their platforms, and why not? The customer journey is important to any digital business, whether it began as an ecommerce website or a print publication.