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We wrapped this 118th edition of the magazine with a small party atop Rome’s Hotel Locarno. On a warm, breezy Monday evening at the start of October we hosted both our Roman subscribers (what a handsome, enthusiastic bunch) along with our distribution and retail partners who’d gathered in the Italian capital for the annual Distripress jamboree. Across the terrace discussions focused on the state of the print industry and the very urgent need for everyone in the supply chain to work together. Earlier in the day I had been given the opportunity to speak to our industry colleagues about the disconnect that’s occurring at retail and why kiosk operators (big and small) need to rethink their offer. “If we’re trying to get people to buy magazines and newspapers, why are we crowding shops with Fanta and inflatable emojis?” I asked. “If you’re going to be in the news trade then be known for that and not as an outlet that just sells neck pillows and fizzy drinks.”

I also suggested that book and magazine retailers were falling behind their neighbours in travel retail and that consumers needed to be enticed by environments that felt a bit more luxe and welcoming. Off-stage, it seemed my little plea had some impact as various CEOs and managers passed by to relay their own industry tales and how they felt too many forces were conspiring against print. A gentleman from Switzerland said that one of the problems is that many groups in the travel-retail space are focused on being food-and-beverage operators, slashing shelf space. “Rather than forging a reputation based on their book and magazine offer, they’re just offering space for self-serve Starbucks machines,” said the distribution chief. “Essentially they’re saying they don’t believe in the sector and are telling partners that they have no place in their shops.”

Bosses running travel-retail brands will say that there’s little they can do about this as their landlords (airports and railway stations) demand high rents and the only way they can make the numbers work is by offering convenience concepts to the travelling masses. While this carries some truth, too many of the global brands operating in this space are failing to innovate or think about their core consumers. Moreover, they’re throwing away the equity they’ve built up by being experts in a specific space. Depending where you board the train for your daily commute or catch your flights, you’ll surely have noticed that the kiosk that used to be conveniently located on the way to the gate or platform has now been tucked away in a distant corner. Is it much of a surprise then that news sales are down when it’s difficult to find an outlet that offers an inspiring array of print?

For too long the digital disciples have been invading boardrooms and talking about “transformation” while wearing virtual-reality headsets, proclaiming that the future will be exclusively screen-based and CEOs had better start giving up floor space to chilled drinks as fast as they can. Not only is this advice wrong, it’s also culturally irresponsible and downright dangerous. Rewind five years to witness how wrong this same crowd were when they said book readership would make a dramatic swing to Kindles and their cousins – it hasn’t happened. Unfortunately, retailers took the bait and started rethinking their formats, so now they’re neither one thing nor the other. They’re not good convenience stores like one might find in Japan and they’re no longer inviting places to pick up established titles and fresh finds. So what’s the industry to do? A few thoughts:

  1. Cut the “digital transformation” bullshit. We’re in the business of selling print so let’s not dress it up as something else.
  2. Follow the lead of the luxury-goods industry and improve the overall retail experience – less strip lighting and bargain bins and more wooden shelves and lamps.
  3. Surprise the consumer with an exciting offer. This might be stating the obvious but the current offer is so dumbed down that there’s little reason to visit most kiosks.
  4. Airport and rail-station operators need to seize the cultural high ground and not pack concourses with Subways and Starbucks. Consumers need intellectual nourishment – give it to them. Demand more of tenants.
  5. Move away from the idea that people on the go only want to read from screens. Sure, a mobile device is part of our daily news diet but there is a drive to move our eyes back to paper.

To continue this discussion, stay tuned for our events in ports around the world and get in touch with me (tb@monocle.com) or my colleagues Hannah (hg@monocle.com) and Luigi (lle@monocle.com). Thank you for your support.

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