Click to Buy That Bag in Vogue as Magazines Become E-Tailers

Vogue and Elle have long influenced what clothes and handbags image-conscious consumers buy. Now, in a bid to reverse flagging sales and stay relevant, fashion magazines may sell the products they feature in their articles.

As Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s iPad and other mobile devices change the way people stay informed and shop, e-commerce is creeping onto editorial agendas. Fashion magazines that have gone as far as to add links on their websites to online vendors such as Yoox SpA (YOOX), may integrate the reading and buying experience, a move that would transform the likes of Vogue and Elle from just trendsetters into virtual shopkeepers.

“Gone are the days when consumers want to flip through the back of a magazine to find an index,” said Shannon Edwards, European director of online shopping portal ShopStyle. Combining retail and editorial “is natural from an economic standpoint and natural from a consumer standpoint.”

Hearst Magazines, publisher of Cosmopolitan and Esquire, will introduce “a series of e-commerce partnerships” this year, according to David Carey, president of the unit of New York-based Hearst Corp. Vogue, Conde Nast Publications’ flagship fashion title, allied last month with Yoox, the Italian Internet clothing and accessories retailer.

Fashion magazines, grappling with a slide in circulation and advertising revenue, are looking to claw back ground lost to shopping websites such as Asos Plc (ASC) and Net-A-Porter -- owned by Compagnie Financiere Richemont SA -- that are winning sales and influence. Fashion brands are also elbowing their way into the market, introducing digital titles like LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA (MC) has done with Nowness.

Fading Fortunes

“Fashion magazines are fighting for their lives,” said Uché Okonkwo, executive director of Luxe Corp., a consulting firm based in Paris.

About $1.57 billion was spent last year on apparel and accessories ads in U.S. magazines -- down from more than $2 billion in 2008 -- as luxury goods companies cut budgets or put funds elsewhere, according to the Association of Magazine Media.

Both Hearst and Conde Nast closed magazines during the global economic crisis. At Time Inc., the publisher of InStyle and Essence, publications’ ad revenue plunged 22 percent in 2009 and rebounded only 3 percent last year. Paris-based Lagardere SCA, which owns Elle, saw a similar weak recovery in 2010 after a 24 percent drop a year earlier.

Fashion magazines’ print circulation is flat or falling as more readers move online. Vogue’s circulation fell 1.5 percent in 2010 to about 1.25 million. Elle’s slid about 0.5 percent to 1.11 million, Audit Bureau of Circulations figures show.

Net-A-Porter

Meanwhile, sites such as Net-A-Porter are gaining ground. Founded in 2000 by former fashion journalist Natalie Massenet, Net-A-Porter was acquired last year by Richemont and features catwalk footage, style tips and designer interviews as well as a catalogue of clothes and accessories.

“It’s a kind of fashion magazine of the future,” said Hearst’s Carey. “We have to find a way to respond to that.”

Turning into e-tailers may be challenging for magazines. In addition to logistical and technological hurdles, magazines may have to contend with an erosion of editorial independence. Fully integrating shopping into editorial content would mean allowing readers to jump from a handbag or shoe in a photo spread to a page offering it for sale in a single click, rather than forwarding them elsewhere for purchases.

That “may be breaking the rules a little bit,” if advertisers are directly involved, said Jonathan Reynolds, a professor at the University of Oxford’s Institute of Retail Management.

‘Substantial Challenge’

Adding content to e-commerce is easier than adding e- commerce to content, according to Okonkwo. EBay Inc. (EBAY) hired a former editor at Conde Nast’s Lucky and Heart’s Harper’s Bazaar magazines as creative director for its fashion portal. Building the logistics and technology required for e-commerce would be “a substantial challenge” for Vogue, Okonkwo said. “Vogue isn’t built to sell products,” she said.

That partly explains why magazines haven’t done more than add links to fashion brands’ e-commerce websites.

Harper’s Bazaar partnered with Net-A-Porter last fall to pick out bags, shoes and clothing available from the shopping site with a single click. Vogue Italia and Yoox followed last month, focusing on products by young designers that could be bought from Yoox’s multibrand shopping site thecorner.com. It’s not clear how revenue from the online transactions will be divided between the partners.

Maurie Perl, a spokeswoman for Conde Nast, declined to comment, while Michael Volpatt, a spokesman for Hearst’s digital operations, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Monetizing Trust

Because readers trust recommendations by magazines, “we have to find the proper ways to monetize that,” Hearst’s Carey said. Yoox’s alliance with Vogue Italia “wasn’t a one-off,” said Federico Marchetti, chief executive officer of Yoox, declining to comment further.

Yoox will benefit from increasing e-commerce and luxury demand growth because of rising global wealth, Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research wrote in a report dated March 29.

Determining who gets control of or access to user information -- credit-card details, addresses, and surfing and shopping histories that can be used to target advertising and offers -- may represent a major hurdle.

Retaining data “from a significant number of people means you’re in business for anything you want to sell,” said Alex Wisch, a Standard & Poor’s Equity Research analyst in London.

Consumers will take time to adjust to the change, according to Jean-Michel Noir, CEO of Redcats, the online fashion and home-furnishings retailer owned by PPR (PP) SA. Redcats operates two sites for its Vertbaudet brand, one of which is content-based and the other which sells products.

“We haven’t merged them,” Noir said. “I’m not saying this is the way we will look at things forever but it’s not that easy to do everything on one site.”

Still, sliding ad revenue may force fashion magazines to do just that, Oxford’s Reynolds said.

“I think magazines are looking at the ad revenue shortfall, and saying, ‘we need to do more.’”

To contact the reporters on this story: Andrew Roberts in Paris at aroberts36@bloomberg.net; Matthew Campbell in Paris at mcampbell39@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Celeste Perri at cperri@bloomberg.net. Vidya Root at vroot@bloomberg.net

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