The Great Glossy Sell-Out

As online retailers court contributors from mag-land (Gay Talese!), Condé Nast and Hearst tiptoe into moving merch. Everything, it seems, is for sale.

denimjacket The Great Glossy Sell Out

Jacket by General Pants, via Svpply

It was Fourth of July weekend and The Observer didn’t have a denim jacket. This situation became especially irksome when, standing in line at Duane Reade, we skimmed the August issue of Glamour. It was a denim-themed issue.

At the image of a model in a long orange gown and denim jacket, the memory of The Observer’s own denim jacket–left in the overhead compartment of a Delta flight–rushed back: cropped to the waist, slightly faded, breast pocket exactly the size of a pack of cigarettes.

Something in our brain said, “Buy.”

If one believes a fashion magazine has power, it lies in such moments. The bulk of its business relies on advertisers’ belief that an editor can influence consumer habits, and indeed, Glamour had influenced ours.

But advertisers may never again believe in this particular alchemy with the fervor they felt pre-recession, much less pre-Internet. Not with so many alternatives–concrete and quantifiable–to consider.

“There’s no way advertising will ever make enough money again,” said Lauren Sherman, editor of the fashion blog Fashionista. “Condé Nast has been so slow with the web, but finally they’re making some smart moves.”

It may be too late, what with the increasing popularity of shopping portals like Net-a-porter, acquired last year by a Swiss jewelry maker in a deal that valued the company at $533 million, and Gilt Groupe, the $1 billion e-commerce giant.

Gilt began as a flash-sale site in 2007, but over the past year the company has begun developing editorial of its own, launching a series of lifestyle blogs–on food, menswear, home furnishings and the city–with the help of former glossy magazine editors like Gourmet’s Ruth Reichl and GQ’s Andy Comer. Gay Talese wrote “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” for Esquire in 1966, but he wrote “Gay Talese on the Art of the Pocket Square” for the Gilt men’s blog, MANual, in 2011.

At Gilt, the marketplace drives the content rather than the other way around. As a result, the company need not adhere to the sorts of ethical guidelines that most magazines still pay lip service to. That may be why Gilt still sends everyone home in black Town Cars.

With retailers pushing into territory once jealously guarded by glossies, magazine publishers are naturally edging ever closer to selling product, though for now they’re generally outsourcing the dirty work to an array of third-party shopping applications.

Last month, Hearst partnered with software company Pixazza, which will endeavor to overlay all online images with exclusive retail partnerships. Fancy the deep red of that dining-room wall in Good Housekeeping? You’ll soon be able to scroll over for a link to buy cans of a similar shade from Behr or Benjamin Moore.

Hearst Chief Revenue officer Kristine Welker described the venture as “a benefit for advertisers, an enhancement.”

Glamour has taken a somewhat different approach to the problem, as The Observer found when we visited the magazine’s online shopping site with her credit card out, determined to procure a jacket.

The portal is organized around blog posts, which seemed to differ from what we had seen in print (denim jackets are apparently not one of the “Top Trends for Summer,” much to The Observer’s disappointment).
A search of the Glamour store for “denim jacket” yielded 84 options (most of which were cut like blazers, a color other than blue and out of season), and the bland presentation–tiny images, silhouetted on white–conjured none of the sex appeal the magazine had been able to evoke. Anywhere The Observer laid our cursor, a Buy-It-Here pop-up fought for our attention.

Soon enough, the impulse was gone.

Like many fashion magazines dabbling in retail, Glamour uses a retail search engine called ShopStyle, which aggregates hundreds of online retailers, kicking back a small commission on every sale.

Sugar Inc. CEO Brian Sugar acquired ShopStyle in 2007. The proprietor of a network of blogs–PopSugar, YumSugar, FabSugar, etc.–he was looking for ways to break out of the low-stakes display advertising game.

“We have the worst click-through rates in the universe,” Mr. Sugar said.

Media companies have been throwing new revenue models against the wall since the first tech bubble–remember Pathfinder?–but ShopStyle has been especially sticky. In addition to a number of Condé Nast titles and Style.com, Elle, People and InStyle have all made use of the service.

Meanwhile, Time Inc. has acquired a similar venture, the Boston start-up StyleFeeder, which powers an InStyle spinoff site StyleFind (the shopping portal is “brought to you by InStyle” but employs separate editors unaffiliated with the magazine).

“The underlying StyleFind technology and retailer affiliate model are easily extendable to other, lifestyle and entertainment brands at Time Inc.,” Time Inc. President for Digital Fran Hauser assured The Observer.

THE TROUBLE WITH such endeavors is that they lack both the visual appeal and the curatorial sensibilities of the magazines they’re partnered with. “It’s a shitty reader experience and they make no money doing it,” said John Caplan, the founder of an e-commerce social network called OpenSky.

“People are drawn to the curatorial editorial aspect of magazines,” Hard Candy Shell experience director Kevin Kearney told The Observer. “It’s the publication’s voice being expressed as a level of taste.”

The challenge for magazines, then, is retaining their curatorial function and protecting their brands while figuring out how to get readers to part with their money in a way that designers, manufacturers and retailers can measure.

In 2010, Vogue sponsored “Steal of the Month” sales on Gilt Groupe with on-trend themes like “safari” or “menswear.” In addition to the ShopStyle e-commerce platform, Elle now partners with fashion labels like Olivier Theyskens for editor-curated sales available directly on Theory.com.

But increasingly, publishers are bridging the gap by creating new shopping portals in partnership with established retailers. Early this year Esquire announced a partnered store with J.C. Penney (yes, that J.C. Penney), called Clad.com, which is expected to launch this summer.

And at the end of the summer, Condé Nast’s GQ will open a special store with Gilt Groupe called Park & Bond, selling looks pulled directly from the magazine through Gilt’s commerce channels.

“Someone in 4 Times Square is getting a cut,” GQ deputy editor Michael Hainey said, adding, “For us it’s a chance to learn.”

OpenSky represents another option for magazines looking to outsource the messy business of retail, aggregating the preferred goods of “curators” with star power or editorial influence–like Tom Colicchio or Kelly Killoren Bensimon–who take a cut of the profits.

Asked about the potential for conflict–say, Mr. Colicchio endorsing an olive oil in exchange for a discount–Mr. Caplan was adamant that the chef could not take the risk to his personal brand.

“As someone who eats at Craft, I don’t think he’s ever compromised the olive oil,” he said.

Glossies need partnerships with third party e-tailers like OpenSky because publishers are ill-equipped–and likely unwilling–to get into the business of sourcing, stocking and shipping the goods their magazines promote or advertise. Even printing and delivering magazines is an expensive headache for media companies.

“It’s not their core competency,” Mr. Caplan said. “Editorial is.”

Currently, OpenSky minimizes the amount of inventory it has to handle by limiting curators to one product per week. It remains to be seen if the company can handle enough goods to accommodate a monthly magazine. Stocking issues were said to be a reason a test partnership with Lucky ended, although Mr. Caplan said more magazine partners are soon to be announced.

In The Observer’s ongoing search for that jacket, we stumbled onto a new site called Svpply.com* that transcended the schizophrenic pseudoeditorial of integrated e-commerce. Styled like a minimalist Tumblr blog, Svpply aggregates products picked by the influencers in one’s online life (Facebook friends and Twitter followers) as well as the site’s editors and participating retailers. Mouse over an image, and an unobtrusive transparent bar displays a price and a link. “Liked” images are placed in a user’s shopping cart.

Searching the site for “denim jacket” yielded 139 options, from a $20 vintage Etsy offering from the ’70s to an asymmetrical Rick Owens interpretation, marked down to $517.

The Observer didn’t purchase a jacket, but a pair of earrings liked by a friend we follow on Twitter caught our eye. (As in the best brick-and-mortar stores, we didn’t notice we’d lost half an hour in the Svpply stream.) The Observer made a purchase, finally, without any editorializing from the retailer, without any magazine publisher collecting a commission for the sale and–here’s the rub–without a dime going toward keeping the next Gay Talese in pocket squares.

kstoeffel@observer.com

*Disclosure: Joshua Kushner, whose brother is Observer publisher Jared Kushner, is an investor in Svpply.

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