Book sales continue to slump in select supermarkets, with some also reporting mediocre magazine movement.
Many attribute the dip to digital publications read on Kindles, Kobos and Nooks. Some also view the struggling economy as a significant factor.
At Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets , both are contributing influences.
“As a category, books and magazine sales are relatively flat, although we have seen increases in cooking magazines and trade size [paperbacks] and children’s books,” Maria Brous, spokeswoman for the chain, told SN. “E-readers may have some effect on the category. However, the economy is also a player.”
Indeed, the extreme price difference between a printed product and downloadable content is driving many penny-pinching consumers toward electronic novels by best-selling authors E.L. James and Suzanne Collins. After the initial investment of a Nook or Kindle, online literature is a fraction of the cost of the real thing.
Books offer the biggest discounts when in e-format. Amazon.com boasts 100 e-books for $3.99 or less. Many hard copy books sold by the entity are $9.99 each.
Some e-novels are even free on Amazon.com, like “The One You Love” by Paul Pilkington. The Kindle version can be downloaded at no charge while the paperback sells for $10.99 on the same site.
Virtual literature sales have skyrocketed at Barnes & Noble. The retailer recently revealed its digital content sales, including digital books, digital newspapers and magazines, and apps.
“During the first quarter [of fiscal 2013], we continued to see improvement in our rapidly growing Nook business, which saw a 46% digital content sales increase,” said William Lynch, chief executive officer of Barnes & Noble, in a statement.
That said, sales of the Nook e-reader devices declined during the same quarter. Lynch attributes these results to lower selling prices and production scaling issues surrounding the newly launched Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight product, resulting in unmet demand.
Magazines Weather the E-Battle
Books may be bearing the brunt of the e-battle, said Tim Cummiskey, manager at Highland Park Market’s Glastonbury, Conn. store. Magazines, he said, seem safe at supermarkets.
“We do have some shoppers who come here every week just to buy their favorite magazines. But mostly, reading materials are impulse purchases and we’ve experienced no impact on magazine sales in recent years,” he said. “The emergence of e-readers is more likely to influence book sales.”
Highland Park’s top magazine sellers are standard women’s magazines like Glamour, Woman’s Day and Elle, plus titles like Men’s Health, which attracts male shoppers.
“E-readers have definitely had more of an effect on book sales than magazine sales,” said Gil Brechtel, president and CEO, Magazine Information Network (MagNet), a Metairie, La.-based research company.
“People magazine, for instance, only reports around 2% of overall circulation from digital sales, so e-magazines are really a complement to printed copies rather than a replacement.”
MagNet’s latest Business Insights report revealed an 8.7% decline in total retail magazine sales in the first half of 2012.
SN Data Points: Retail Magazine Sales Plunge 
Wal-Mart Stores  sold the most, followed by Barnes & Noble and Kroger Co . Of the top 10 retailers, Safeway , Publix Super Markets and Ahold USA  also made the list. In all, supermarkets captured 34% of retail sales.
“Some retail chains — those who continue to promote the category — performed much better than the industry during the first six months of the year,” said Brechtel. “Book sales in supermarkets were actually good last year, driven mainly by best sellers like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and ‘The Hunger Games.’ But even these big sellers can fall flat if retailers don’t consider positioning, lighting, signage and the right product mix.”
Robert Passikoff, president, New York-based Brand Keys, concurred, adding that proper promotion is key. Retailers must call attention to this category if they expect to see positive results, he said.
Passikoff cited Giant Eagle , Wegmans  and Publix as supermarkets that implement stellar promotional programs throughout their stores. He encourages these and other chains to apply the same strategies to their reading sections.
“Books and magazines are like any other nonfood products. In supermarkets, they have to be called out using signage and ads in circulars, plus strategic merchandising tactics, or customers might walk right past them,” he said. “Supermarkets have become one-stop shops as is, and the retailers who heavily promote their books and magazines will meet yet another need of today’s convenience craving consumers.”
Publix continually adapts strategies used to move food items and applies them to the likes of E.L. James and O Magazine. According to Brous, every location is managed separately, with special focus on shopper purchase patterns at each store.
Read more: Publix Stores Answer 'See for Yourself' Ads 
Some Publix stores have a single space for all reading materials. Others have multiple literature locations.
“Whenever it makes sense, we offer Center Store placement and displays as shoppers enter the store. There is a wide variety of best-selling books and discounted options too,” she said. “Checkout lanes serve for the convenience of the customer as well as for the impulse purchase.”
Some supermarkets are taking things a step further with reading clubs. H.E. Butt Grocery Co.  is one such supermarket.
As part of its Read 3 children’s literacy program, launched last year, H-E-B promoted Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” as the H-E-Buddy book of the month in May.
The retailer not only sold the book in its stores, it tweeted about the 40%-off Seuss creation, which retails for $8.97, and reminded shoppers to pick up the book before heading out to the big screen to see the animated film version from Universal Pictures that opened on March 2.
In September, “Where the Wild Things Are” was the 40%-off book highlighted by the retailer.
“Supermarkets should continue promoting books and magazines however they can, including through their websites, Facebook and Twitter. But, they could do even more in light of the growth of digital media,” said Bill Bishop, president, Willard Bishop, Barrington, Ill. “I’m starting to see some synergies, like the mobile app being created by Publications International, the folks that produce recipe magazines typically displayed at the front end at supermarkets.”
The Publications International app will soon enable stores to offer recipe magazines and books, like its popular “i-Cookbook” in e-format.
SN Infographic: Home Cooks Look for Inspiration 
To provide digital content, however, supermarkets will have to install digital kiosks or other devices in stores, said MagNet’s Brechtel.
“Barnes & Noble has kiosks for customers to download books. They’ve even shrunk inventory recently as a result of the popularity of e-books,” he said. “If supermarkets worked with publishers to have kiosks put into their stores, they could effectively capture a share of the digital market and free up space for other food items in their stores.”
Brechtel anticipates even more consumer interest in e-readers and digital content in upcoming years. Barnes & Noble’s inability to meet the demand for its Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight is a sign that shoppers still yearn for digital content.
So is the recent sellout of Amazon’s newest e-reader, Kindle Fire. The new product sold out in just nine months this year, capturing 22% of tablet sales in the U.S. And it isn’t even Christmas yet. During December 2011 alone, customers purchased well over 1 million Kindle devices per week. Gifting of Kindle books was up 175% between Black Friday and Christmas Day compared with the same period in 2010.
Retailers must find more direct ways to compete or face losing a larger share of the market, said Passikoff.
“Not long ago, people probably laughed at the thought of a supermarket trying to sell other retailers’ gift cards,” said Passikoff. “It might seem like a stretch to think that supermarkets could have a device for downloadable books and magazines, but the technology is already out there, it just needs to be harnessed.”
Read more: N.J. Law Could Jeopardize Gift Cards Market 
In the meantime, supermarkets should focus on their highest-selling products. Cookbooks and specialty magazines related to holidays and seasonal events are typically hot ticket items and should be showcased by stores whenever possible, said Brechtel.
“High-cover-priced specialty publications, or ‘bookazines’ as we call them, aren’t likely to be available for digital downloads, so this is one segment of the category that supermarkets could really profit from promoting,” he said. “Supermarkets are also well known for paperback books and children’s books, especially best sellers. These are two other types of reading materials that food stores should keep front and center.”
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