Tesco’s top-shelf tactics will keep supermarkets on top of the game

WHEN IS THE top shelf not the top shelf? Answer: when it's the top shelf of the magazine racks at Tesco.

The
news that Tesco now obscures the covers of Nuts, Zoo, Maxim, Loaded and
FHM and has banished them to the "higher shelves" has given rise to
more hot air than you would find at the Flatulent Balloonists Ball.

The
general drift is that this is a good thing. But I'm not so sure. What
some see as the supermarkets taking a lead in cleaning up the middle
shelf, looks to me like confirmation of their increasing stranglehold
on the magazine business.

You don't have to be a member of the
Andrea Dworkin memorial society to agree with those Tesco customers who
complained that they no longer found the front covers of Nuts, Zoo,
Maxim and the rest appropriate family viewing.

The numbers of
bare-breasted beauties tugging at their thongs has been rising
relentlessly in the past 12 months as the competition in the men's
market has become – as their front covers would have it – hot hot hot.

Of
course, men's magazines have always had to walk a gossamer-thin line
ever since Loaded first published pictures of Liz Hurley in see-through
pants more than a decade ago. But a risky business became a lot more
risqué with the fierce competition between not just the monthlies but
also Nuts and Zoo.

Only last summer you were likely to find more
bare flesh in a copy of Heat than Nuts but you can't say the same now.
Not unless this week's Heat is about to run the "101 real girls boobs
issue", thus beating Nuts nipple count of last week by a single breast.

The
ante has been upped along the shelf as everyone fights to hang onto
readers, so the lowest common denominator has dropped a notch or two as
the sales have just about held up.

Last week, next to Nuts' "100
real girls boobs", sat Zoo's "naked photoshoot inside – Shell and
Vanessa", Maxim's "too extreme for the mag – free erotic book",
Loaded's Abi Titmuss sex masterclass and Arena's luxury sex playing
cards.

The only guarantee in such a crowded market is that when
everyone jumps into a barrel of nipples someone will come up sucking
his thumb. And you can be sure it won't be the supermarkets.

No
surprise then that everyone – editors, publishers, advertising types –
has been falling over themselves to point out two things. One, that
supermarkets don't have a real top shelf, because they refuse to stock
what boys used to call "jazz mags" – defined in Tesco's guidelines
as Category 1 magazines that depict exposed genitals or female nipples
(thank god they state female nipples or that would be the end of Men's
Health). And two, that men's magazines and the supermarkets enjoy a
mutually exciting relationship.

"It is a vibrant magazine sector
and we want to continue to sell these titles," said David Cooke, senior
buying manager at Tesco, announcing the store's decision at last
month's PPA conference.

"Our desire is to accommodate all our
customers, not to tell editors what is or is not on their cover." In
short, everyone is agreed that Tesco's decision is not at all like that
of Walmart in the US where Maxim and FHM have been delisted because of
their content.

The truth is that men's magazines do enjoy an
excellent relationship with the superstores. The only time a
supermarket ever tried to interfere with the content of Maxim when I
was the editor was when they took issue with a cover-mounted can of
deodorant that they feared might explode, taking out passing customers.
But it wasn't unknown for an account handler at our distributors to
disappear with a cover cromalin to check whether it would be bring the
supermarkets out in a sweat.

Hardly surprising when nearly 20 per
cent of the sector's near four million copy sales a month are sold
through the supermarkets.

The biggest surprise is that Tesco would now want to open the top shelf debate at all.

Because
the superstores aren't about to blow a chance to make a buck. "We will
continue to stock them as long as our customers continue to buy," said
Cooke. Considering they stand to gain a handsome share of the £1.20
cover price, they have as much intention of telling the editor of Nuts
what to do with his mighty organ as they have of telling a banana
farmer what fertiliser to use on a bunch of Fyfes.

So instead of
giving Tesco a back slapping for taking up the late Mrs Whitehouse's
rolling pin, we should be delivering a face slapping for their
ambivalent position. Because they, more than anyone, are responsible
for lowering the lowest common denominator in magazine publishing.

When
I began editing Maxim in 1999, the supermarkets' share of all sales was
negligible, less than five per cent. Now they account for nearly 20 per
cent of all men's magazine sales, which is almost twice as much as WH
Smith and nearly two-thirds of what the nation's 54,000 independent
newsagents sell between them.

Supermarkets are quite simply the
largest single magazine retailer in the country. This gives them
enormous influence over the sort of magazines that thrive and indeed
survive. An influence that will become all the greater if they manage
to secure their long-held ambition to rearrange magazine distribution
deals and in the process put what the PPA estimates as 20,000
independent newsagents out of business.

There are around 3,000
consumer magazines in the country. WH Smith has a mandatory list of 760
titles. A typical supermarket has a range of just 340.

If a
magazine is to make it onto Tesco's list of approved titles you have to
be able to show that it's going to sell in shedloads. A successful
launch sure as hell needs to pay its way by showing how many millions
will be spent persuading people to buy it. The result?

Lowest common denominator publishing by multi-million pound publishers.

The
days of remortgaging your house and launching your own brilliantly
innovative magazine are gone. The editorial entrepeneur behind the next
Wallpaper, The Face or even Private Eye is going to have to find other
ways to get his magazine to market.

ALL OF WHICH
is bad news for my planned men's shopping launch. Based on Richard
Desmond's totally sex-free and rather good women's shopping magazine
Happy, my plan was to launch one for men – Unhappy? Like Desmond's
Happy, there would be a refreshing lack of banal kickback interviews
with Giorgio Armani, no borderline gay shoots where you can't see the
clothes and only captions that told you where to go to get the items in
the picture and how much they cost.

Unhappy? would be aimed
fairly and squarely at men who needed new clothes – so that would be
most of the male population then – but whose misery at not having them
was more than outweighed by the sheer hell of shopping. Unhappy? would
tell them where to go to get the clobber in question and how to get
home fast. Everything would be run on SAS rules – get in, get out.

Trouble
is, I've no money to spend on a multi-million pound advertising
campaign or prohibitively expensive point of sale promotions at Tesco.
And there's no sex. The supermarkets for one are never going to carry
it. On second thoughts perhaps I might launch plan B instead. It's
called Sax. This they should love – it's like a jazz mag but without
the trumpets.

■ Tom Loxley was editor-in-chief of Maxim and Maxim Fashion Next week: Alison Hastings

Sign up for our free weekly digital magazine, Press Gazette Journalism Weekly, and daily newsletter
To contact Press Gazette with a story call 0207 936 6433
or email pged@pressgazette.co.uk
To advertise, please call 0207 936 6764.