When Mags Merge With Bags

On a chilly Friday night in December, a line was forming outside a storefront in Manhattan's fashionable Meatpacking District. The previously vacant retail space had been transformed into a preppy men's boutique stocked with $200 sweaters and artisan leather notebooks.

The store was the latest pop-up shop to appear just in time for New York's holiday shopping season. What distinguished it, however, was that it formed part of a broader collaboration between GQ, the men's magazine published by Condé Nast, and Park & Bond, the ecommerce site owned by internet retailer Gilt Groupe.

By marrying two powerful brands from distinctly different industries, the pop-up shop was able to appeal to both fans of GQ and the discriminating shoppers Park & Bond attracts. It also allowed an old-school magazine publisher to get into the booming business of ecommerce.

"Our readers have always shopped from our pages," said Jim Nelson, editor-in-chief of the US edition of GQ, during the launch of the store. "We're just making it easier for them."

Even now, with the Park & Bond pop-up shop closed for the season, continues to feature a special GQ section where visitors can "shop the issue" – for example, by buying the same polo shirt that was worn by actor Matt Damon on the cover of the January magazine.

GQ is not the only media operation to embrace a more overt commercial role. More and more publications have been trying to establish ecommerce operations in an effort to extend their brands beyond the printed page, and find new sources of revenue in a tough advertising market. Meanwhile, ecommerce sites such as Gilt, luxury fashion retailer Net-a-Porter and One King's Lane, a home furnishings ecommerce site, are increasingly using magazine-style articles and slideshows to distinguish themselves in a crowded online retail marketplace. Together, these two trends have begun to blur the lines between editorial content and advertisements.

"All the ecommerce companies now describe themselves as content companies," says David Carey, president of Hearst Magazines, owner of publications such as men's title Esquire and Elle. "We have to make sure we set aside long-held orthodoxies, and find ways to properly modernise content and commerce."

Those orthodoxies have traditionally separated the editorial and commercial operations of news organisations. In the same way that big advertisers should not receive unusually favourable coverage, so too, the thinking goes, should retail partners not see their products receive exceptional placement in print or online.

The US edition of Esquire, the chief rival to GQ, launched an ecommerce site last year. Called Clad, it features apparel chosen by Esquire's editors. The December issue of the magazine included a small glossy catalogue advertising Clad products.

David Granger, Esquire's editor, insists the new commercial relationships are not compromising his magazine's editorial independence. "In no way does what's available on Clad affect what goes in Esquire," he says. "We've tried to create this buffer."

For example, the magazine's commercial staff do not determine the products reviewed in Esquire's pages.

However, the retail business is a foreign industry to most publishers, leaving them in need of outside expertise. "The challenge is that there may be an underestimation of what it takes to create a true ongoing lineup of product offerings," says Chris Hauca, the head of strategic direction and delivery of ecommerce solutions at Acquity Group, a marketing and technology consultancy.

Given the complexities of retail and online commerce, Mr Hauca says that partnerships such as the one between GQ and Gilt make sense.

Esquire followed a similar strategy. Mr Granger says the company had been looking to get into ecommerce for two years, but only made the leap when Hearst, its publisher, struck a broader agreement with JC Penney, the US department store.

While Mr Granger says ecommerce was not introduced to directly replace lost advertising dollars, he acknowledges that a more diversified revenue stream is needed today: "We were eager to embrace this new world that was coming out of the recession."

As this new world evolves, however, the distinction between what is an editorial and what is an advertorial is quickly disappearing. GQ and Esquire do not promote their retail partnerships directly on their magazine websites. Yet Golf Digest, another Condé Nast publication, is less restrained. It maintains a list of the best gear for the game, and has begun providing direct links from its website to sites where readers can purchase clubs and clothes. For each sale, Golf Digest receives a percentage of the transaction. Though that may strike some purists as a step too far, Bob Carney, brand editor of Golf Digest, says it is simply an attempt to meet evolving consumer expectations. "We're now dealing with an audience that is used to looking at a book on Amazon and buying it," he says. "We wanted to complete that cycle, and the final step is buying it."

But Mr Carney makes the case that his magazine is incorruptible. "Companies understand that what drives the business is the editorial review," he says. "They know at this point that whether they advertise or not, it simply is not a factor in the editorial process."

It remains to be seen whether readers are put off by the creeping retail initiatives of their favourite magazines. "If it's done in a subtle way it won't be perceived as blurring those lines," says David Renard, a consultant with MediaIdeas.

By contrast, the ecommerce start-ups experimenting with editorial content have no reservations about blurring lines. Gilt produces reams of high-quality editorial content on sites such as Gilt MANual and Gilt Taste, a site about food. . . . To staff these websites, the company has lured editorial talent away from traditional publications. Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet magazine, now edits Gilt Taste. "If this was just a catalogue of products – no matter how wonderful – I wouldn't want to be involved," she wrote in her welcome letter on the website. "What makes Gilt Taste unique is that it's a new kind of magazine, one that has no ads and is supported solely by sales. We don't just want to sell you great products – we want to tell you the stories of the people who create them."

Other industry-crossing appointments can be found at Net-a-Porter, where Natalie Massenet, its founder and chairman, was previously a fashion editor at Condé Nast titles W and Tatler. Gilt staffers came from GQ, Esquire and Elle Décor.

But Sucharita Mulpuru, analyst with Forrester Research, says luxury ecommerce sites' investment in editorial could prove fickle. "Copy need not be well-written to drive sales. It needs to tell you the essentials of what you need to know about the product and the photos need to be strong," she says. "Ultimately, when it's time to cut costs, the cost of copy will be one of the first things to trim. Sadly."

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