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Supermarkets are building unique shopper relationships through custom magazines.Major players like Ahold USA, A&P, Safeway, Farmer Jack, Big Y Foods and Meijer Inc. are emulating such well-known lifestyle magazines as Martha Stewart Living and general-interest woman's magazines like Better Homes & Gardens with titles of their own -- Lifestyle, Good Living, Celebrate, Flavors.Even smaller, regional

Supermarkets are building unique shopper relationships through custom magazines.

Major players like Ahold USA, A&P, Safeway, Farmer Jack, Big Y Foods and Meijer Inc. are emulating such well-known lifestyle magazines as Martha Stewart Living and general-interest woman's magazines like Better Homes & Gardens with titles of their own -- Lifestyle, Good Living, Celebrate, Flavors.

Even smaller, regional or specialized chains, such as Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's have entered the fray. And while many chain executives themselves prefer remaining mum about their publications, their publishing partners and -- more importantly -- some of their suppliers are upbeat about early performance returns.

"Supermarkets are trying to find one more thing that will be of value to their customers, and more of them are realizing that their own magazine may be it," said Marilyn Barnett, president of Mars Advertising, a Southfield, Mich.-based marketing-communications agency whose Unique Concepts Inc. division custom-publishes magazines for the Farmer Jack and Big Y chains and, this fall, launched a new quarterly magazine called Good Living for A&P.

"It's part of becoming more targeted. Whereas in the past, three TV networks reached the world, supermarkets know they're no longer able to do that. They're targeting every area for the demographics they're looking to reach."

The use of custom magazines in retailing in general is "on the rise," agreed Diane Pohly, president of Pohly & Partners, a Boston-based concern that produces Whole Foods' new magazine, Flavors. "What's driving that is a need for retailers to try to add value for the customer and then, by adding that value, potentially capture additional information about the customer. It's so difficult in the retail environment to build a relationship with the customer, to capture that information and then, hopefully, to get that customer to come back and shop more frequently."

Among supermarkets, Pohly added, such needs are being effectively combined with promotion, advertising and even couponing of specific merchandise. "It's just time for many stores to move a level beyond the whole couponing thing that goes on in circulars, especially in the grocery-store environment," she maintained.

Similarly, the growing number of custom-published supermarket magazines is making an impression on packaged-goods suppliers. "It gives us a much tighter link in communicating with the consumer and affecting their purchase behavior than regular magazines do," said Nicole Montenegro, assistant brand manager for Mission Foods Inc., Irving, Texas. Mission is an advertising partner of Ahold USA's Lifestyle magazine. "So far, we've had very good experience" with Ahold's publications, she said.

Quality -- with as much distancing as possible from the flier-and-circular mentality -- is the watchword of this new and growing breed of custom-published supermarket magazines. "The magazine has to represent the image that the chain would like to portray in the marketplace," Barnett said.

"Sometimes you see publications that are more ads than editorial content, for example. But these are not ad books. They are of high quality, with lots of information that not only is usable but is needed by shoppers today."

Each issue of A&P's Good Living, for example, is 40 to 50 pages of material published in a four-color, glossy format, at an overall quality level comparable to that of general-circulation women's magazines such as Better Homes & Gardens, Barnett said. Similarly aimed at women ages 25 through 49, Good Living carries an editorial mix of recipes, health advice and beauty tips and ads both from A&P and from manufacturers.

And A&P doesn't scrimp when it comes to merchandising the magazine, which Barnett believes is crucial: Good Living is housed within the store in a stand-alone display custom-designed just for the magazine and clearly labeled "Good Living." "It's important how it's presented," Barnett said. "If it looks like junk, it'll be perceived as junk. And it isn't. This is a high-quality magazine."

For nearly two years, Safeway has been distributing to customers an eight-times-a-year magazine produced by Sunset Publishing Corp., the Menlo Park, Calif.-based publisher of the highly regarded regional magazine, Sunset. The magazine carries recipes and kitchen-advice columns, health-related articles, Safeway coupons and advertisements from big-name suppliers ranging from Hallmark to Schering-Plough's Claritin allergy reliever. A spokeswoman for the Pleasanton, Calif.-based chain declined to comment on the magazine.

Ahold USA's eight divisions, including Finast, Tops and Edwards regional chains, distribute a custom, 82-page quarterly magazine, produced by Dockery Publishing Inc., Dallas, to frequent-shopper customers or those who spend a minimum of $20 at the checkouts.

The magazine's mix of editorial, advertising and coupons is designed with several objectives in mind: marketing the Ahold chain, promoting its supplier-advertisers, converting shopper interest in particular items into immediate purchases, and providing overall information on health, diet, nutrition and food to consumers.

Each chain gets a few pages within each issue of Lifestyle to customize its own message to consumers, including a letter by the division president or some other executive, such as its head of consumer affairs.

Lifestyle is neatly serving Ahold's own interests so far. More than one-third of Lifestyle recipients make eight or more trips to an Ahold supermarket each month, the company's research has revealed, and more than three-quarters are families of three members or more. Such products, said one industry insider, "are positioned not to make money as a product for the retailer but are positioned to create a long-term relationship with the consumer."

Ahold is finding that many of its suppliers are warming to the benefits of Lifestyle. For such supermarket custom publications in general, one publishing executive said, there are two keys to obtaining such support by brand marketers: first, to convince them of the value of targeting households that are determined by their participation at the supermarket rather than targeting demographics created by [newspaper and magazine] circulation departments; second, to convince them that the magazine "truly is lifestyle-driven compared with promotion-driven."

Pohly (formerly Cadmus Custom Publishing) was selected by Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market Inc. to produce a custom publication targeted for sale to consumers at Whole Foods' stores in 21 states. The $1.5 billion company now has about a 12% market share of the natural-food retailing industry.

Flavors is a four-color magazine that debuted with a fall-winter issue and distribution of about 40,000 copies. The magazine includes editorial and recipes as well as original food photography to promote healthy lifestyles and nutritional eating values, and includes about 20% advertising, according to Pohly & Partners.

Pohly said she believes that any custom magazine should drive additional traffic to the retailer and generate incremental sales in the typical transaction as well as help to build relationships with customers by providing value-added information and to reinforce relationships with vendors, who will be advertising in the magazine. Because they care so specifically about the nutritive value of foods and about how their diets fit together, Whole Foods customers are more eager to get more information about what they're buying than is the typical supermarket customer, Pohly noted.

"We want to brand Whole Foods as food-passionate and reinforce the brand perception of Whole Foods as knowledgeable food experts," Pohly said. "These customers are very loyal," Pohly continued. "This food is their passion and their hobby; it's not just somewhere they go to get their weekly groceries. They really want progressive cooking ideas, and they want to feel a real part of the Whole Foods culture."

Scanning Universal Product Codes will allow Whole Foods to track at which stores the magazine is bought and also which products, and how much of them, featured in a given issue are purchased by consumers, Pohly said. And reader surveys over time will help Whole Foods answer whether the magazine affected consumers' attitudes toward the store.

The trend toward psychographic marketing that will be expressed by the Whole Foods magazine isn't lost on mainstream retailers, said Mars Advertising's Barnett. She said that an increasing number of her supermarket clients are embracing cause-related themes for their magazines. For example, Good Living won't be the first foray into custom magazine publishing for A&P: For 10 years, Mars Advertising has been producing an annual Earth Day magazine for A&P called Project Earth, a 36-page glossy that the chain distributes free to customers. Similarly, Springfield, Mass.-based Big Y is vitally interested in education as an issue of concern among its customers, so Mars produces a quarterly magazine for Big Y called Educating Kids that deals exclusively with education.