May 1, 2013, 4:02 PM

Shopping inspiration

Blending content and commerce, magazines create their own form of e-retailing.

Nearly 36 million consumers each month flip through a copy of Better Homes and Gardens magazine looking at the latest home, food and entertainment products and trends. The 92-year-old magazine, published by Meredith Corp., also has a robust web presence at BHG.com, averaging about 5.6 million monthly visitors each month as measured from September through November last year. That traffic is on par with e-commerce sites like VictoriasSecret.com, Cabelas.com and Shopping.HP.com, according to Internet Retailer's Top 500 Guide.

If all goes according to plan, BHG.com itself could soon be a major e-commerce site.

Last August, the magazine added a Shop section to BHG.com, enabling the publisher to sell online the products it recommends in the pages of its magazine and on its web site. As of early 2013, the Shop listed for sale more than 500,000 products from dozens of major e-retailers, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Overstock.com Inc., Target Corp. and Sur La Table Inc. among them. The items for sale are a mix of merchandise featured in magazine stories, editors' picks and products from retailers and brands routinely featured in Better Homes and Gardens, says Janell Pittman, general manager for BHG.com. "We are making it very easy for readers to buy what they see," she says.

The Shop is run a lot like an affiliate program, with Better Homes and Gardens charging a fee to the listed retailer for each click that takes a BHG.com reader to the retailer's product page, and taking a share of the sale should a consumer complete the purchase. Pittman declines to reveal the fees or revenue share percentage. But she says early results are surpassing expectations, noting the average order value for BHG.com-referred shoppers is $125.

Better Homes and Gardens isn't alone in its push to generate a fresh revenue stream by attaching its name to an e-commerce initiative. Over the last two years or so, consumer magazines including Lucky, Esquire, Real Simple, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Coastal Living have each taken steps to leverage their titles, reputations and web traffic to drive online sales. At the same time, the process has been going in the opposite direction, as well. Web-only e-retailers like Gilt Groupe Inc. and Net-a-Porter LLC are trying their hands as publishers—each has launched print or digital magazines in the last year.

Publishers today say consumers want more from them than ink on paper, and the desire to deepen their ties with readers, along with the potential revenue opportunity, is spurring their moves toward web commerce. Meanwhile web retailers understand that consumers like having an editorial voice they can trust to help them interpret trends when they shop. While some web-only retailers are launching their own publications to deliver that kind of advice, others, like home dŽcor e-retailer Wayfair LLC, are pursuing similar goals in partnerships with established titles.

Consumer magazine publishers need to find new revenue streams because print advertising—their primary source of income—is declining. From 2002 to 2012 the total number of print advertising pages dropped 33.2%, according to the Publishers Information Bureau, which tracks consumer magazine advertising spending on behalf of the Magazine Publishers of America, an industry trade group.

Likely the most full-fledged e-commerce initiative of any U.S. publisher is a transactional e-retail site called ShopBazaar that Hearst Corp.'s fashion title Harper's Bazaar launched in October. Consumers can browse among more than 1,000 products that have either appeared in the print magazine or been selected by editors to match fashion trends highlighted in recent issues, says Harper's Bazaar vice president and publisher Carol Smith, who spearheaded the e-commerce effort upon her arrival at Hearst in mid-2011. She says a prime objective was to allow readers to buy directly from the site, rather than being directed to retailers' web sites. "I wanted to marry shopping and reading," she says. "Other magazines that are trying [e-commerce] are aggregators—you have to click out to that brand's site. What I wanted more than anything was to put everything in one cart and check out once."

The designer who created the look of the print magazine also designed the templates for the ShopBazaar site, which was built using e-commerce software from eBay Inc.'s Magento unit. Product photography is produced in-house for almost all products, using studios already in place for magazine shoots. A message appears on most category-level pages encouraging shoppers to e-mail or call a personal stylist for advice on how to interpret a trend. The stylist who gets those inquiries sits among Harper's Bazaar's editors.

In print and online, products available on the ShopBazaar site are designated with a "B" mark. Harper's Bazaar also promotes items available online in a print ad in each issue; each issue has a readership of about 3.3 million, and its web site attracts about 1.2 million unique visitors per month. That's as many shoppers as visit the e-commerce sites of retail chains like The Wet Seal Inc. and Brooks Brothers, according to Internet Retailer data. Smith says about 70 products, or 10% of the approximately 700 products featured in the March issue, were available for purchase through ShopBazaar. She's aiming to raise that to about 100 per issue.

Smith says 74% of ShopBazaar traffic lands on the pages of products denoted with B's in the magazine. "That's the authority of a fashion magazine," she says. "It is our editor's voice." The traffic statistic, Smith believes, demonstrates how content drives commerce. What's different now is ShopBazaar provides the bridge from editorial influence to transaction, and Hearst gets a cut of the sale. "You can get the same Stella McCartney dress online at Net-a-Porter or Neiman Marcus, but we provide the context and experience for it," Smith says.

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