Interview with Barnes & Noble’s Director of Merchandise and Newsstand
January 15, 2020
Invigorating the newsstand and driving traffic, two things that Krifka Steffey is determined to do in 2020. Krifka is Director of Merchandising for the Newsstand at Barnes and Noble and believes that with continued evolution and the idea that print magazines in today’s digital world are still relevant and are quickly becoming a luxury item for readers, the technology of print will remain a viable one.
Krifka’s advice to industry leaders is let’s look forward instead of backward; let’s promote what’s good about the industry, such as what’s selling, what people are attracted to, instead of always preaching gloom and doom. And most important let’s use social media as a conduit to ignite a better relationship with the audience: “I think social media actually should be giving the publishing industry, certainly magazine publishers, a lot of intelligence on what customers are paying attention to and what they like. And doing that virtually for free.”
It’s great advice from someone who knows the newsstand and the business of magazines at retail. She also works in partnership with publishers to create new and exclusive products, while conducting global searches for new magazines to add to the roster. She’s a busy lady with a head-full of great ideas.
So, please enjoy this lively conversation with, Krifka Steffey, Director, Merchandise & Newsstand, Barnes & Noble, as Mr. Magazine™ brings you the next in his series with the magazine and magazine media executives that make the industry world go-round.
But first the sound-bites:
On her assessment of the future of magazine newsstand and retail: What I foresee is that the evolution that has already started to take place within publishing will continue. And that evolution is moving, certainly, toward higher quality and toward magazines becoming more of a luxury item, especially those that you would buy at retail versus what you’d receive at home by subscription. We’ve also seen major brands come down in their frequency, while seeing new titles in the bookazine format, where they don’t necessarily have a “next issue,” they’re a very singularly-focused subject or something that’s hot at the time. A lot of what our industry has been doing is looking back instead of looking forward, and asking what does that mean in terms of newsstand and physical retail?
On any particular accomplishments Barnes & Noble achieved in 2019: We have decidedly been creating greater partnerships directly with our publishers, not only bookazine publishers, but also with everyday brands that anyone on the street could name, in terms of giving feedback on trends that we foresee coming. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated the Korean pop band BTS ending up selling a million dollars in products on our newsstand, but that came about through a partnership with various publishers and advising them. We’re seeing these things trending; CD sales increasing; what can we do to get on this trend? And I think that’s a key part of why Barnes & Noble has been doing well with magazines; we’ve really been partnering with those publishers to see what’s coming.
On whether her role today is more collaborative with publishers: With some publishers we’ve moved toward a more collaborative, back and forth relationship, and in some cases, the same with some consultants. But there’s still a pretty large contingent of the business where there is no collaboration between publisher and retailer. And I know there are a lot of other retailers that are involved, but there still feels like there’s a disconnect in sharing trends and looking at data to produce products that customers are looking for.
On whether this new role makes her job easier or harder: I’ve been doing this collaboration with publishers since I started in the business, so I would say it’s probably easier, because we’re aware of what product is coming and we believe in it. And that’s because we have either seen some data that supported it or we’ve seen customer trends, something like that. We’re better able to support that internally and that’s either in emails, displays, or social media. So when we don’t know what is coming and we get surprised by a cover and we sell out, I really feel that we’ve missed a great opportunity. So, I would say those collaborations actually make my job easier, instead of having to react on the backend, I have knowledge on the frontend.
On the variety of magazines Barnes & Noble carries, including international titles with higher cover prices: The U.K. and Australian imports and other areas that we receive from, we also get some things from The Netherlands, these products are very high quality; they’re very unique and they’re perfective in their writing style. If you were to compare a domestic version of some very well-known brands to a U.K. version, they would read very differently. So, our perspective here has been that assortment. Let’s let people and customers choose what they want by what they buy.
On the biggest challenge she faced in 2019: I think we have a supply chain problem. I often describe it as a giant onion with so many layers within it and so much complexity. And we certainly faced challenges in the actual delivery, logistics, data, flow and analysis determining the right number of copies to the right places. But I also think our industry is very restricted in allowing new entries to the market. We tend to have a very consistent and almost, I hate to say aging, workforce within our industry that doesn’t present new opportunities as quickly as we really need.
On whether she is working on changing that: I am. We’ve been looking at various ways that we can, obviously, take in magazines. We also have our own distribution center; should we be distributing our own magazines? Should we be making our own magazines? We have a publisher partner as well, so there are various things we’ve been thinking about. There are lots of opportunities out there, because we certainly see customer demand. So, I think that will probably be the biggest challenge for this year, but it was also a challenge in 2019 too.
On whether she feels magazines are still traffic-generators for the bookstores, bringing customers in: That’s a great question. I’ve often thought about the different customer types that we have within newsstand. And we definitely have a customer base that’s very loyal to our category. And so we often see two magazines in a basket and we don’t necessarily see a book, so I do think the newsstand on its own has its own traffic. When people look at our mainlines they say: wow, you carry so many magazines, but we sell about 90 percent of our assortment in every store. So when you see those conceivably smaller audience titles, they really do generate traffic to our stores.
On whether the specialty titles are bringing in the most revenue for Barnes & Noble, rather than the regular frequency magazines: I think that kind of goes back to the question about subscriptions. I mean when you really look at what subscriptions and ABC rate-based have done, those titles are really no longer newsstand profit-generators. For a lot of reasons we have those titles in-store because we know customers expect us to carry them, but in terms of newness factor or titles that are not available by subscription, that’s where those bookazines come in.
On whether the shift from Ingram to ANC made her life easier, harder or the same: The supply chain in general out there for everyone has gotten more complicated. We’ve gone through the various changes with UPS rates, and we have trucking from one depot to another. The printers are also an interesting component of all of this as well, so I think this entire thing, from start to finish, has been in a state of flux. Nothing very consistent or reassuring.
On whether she considers social media platforms friend or foe to magazines and magazine media: I actually see social media, especially Instagram, as almost being representative of an online magazine. You’re looking for a great image to support very little text, and then some are obviously longer, but I think social media actually should be giving the publishing industry, certainly magazine publishers, a lot of intelligence on what customers are paying attention to and what they like. And doing that virtually for free. But if we continue to give away content online, then we can’t continue to expect people to pay for that same thing in print.
On anything she’d like to add: I would just suggest to our industry partners that we should speak more positively about what’s happening in our industry and what is working and what’s selling. I think too often we’re still stuck in looking back instead of looking forward and that doesn’t do anybody any favors.
On what keeps her up at night: The challenge that we face with getting the right product that’s on trend at the right time. That aspect, when we have the speed to market challenges, that piece. And also getting the right volume of product into the right stores to service the right customers to avoid sellout. And that’s something that’s very challenging for me, because a sellout to me could be at one copy, could be at 10 copies, and that’s a lost sale opportunity. So, I think that’s the piece that concerns me the most. Less about attracting the millennials, or figuring out the next hot thing; it’s getting the right copy in the right place at the right time, which has always been our industry’s biggest problem.