Archive for the ‘Consumer Behavior’ Category

Japanese Magazines in Freefall

Friday, March 2nd, 2007

On February 1, 2007, the Asahi Shimbun ran an article about the decline in Japanese magazine sales over the last nine years. Total 2006 sales were down 4.4% compared to 2005 — the largest single drop since 1999. As examples of the trend, Asahi offered the following sales comparisons between 1996 and 2006 for several magazines from the Audit Bureau of Circulation:

Shukan Gendai (weekly news magazine): 720K –> 440K

Shukan Post (weekly news magazine): 860K –> 400K

non•no (monthly young women’s fashion and lifestyle magazine): 940K –> 340K

with (monthly women’s fashion and lifestyle magazine): 740K –> 360K

Tokyo Walker (local information magazine): 400K –> 80K

Why is the Japanese market for magazines declining?

Conventional wisdom in the Japanese publishing industry blames the rise of the internet. They fear that readers are gradually moving over to the internet to obtain free information instead of relying on magazines. The problem with this theory, however, is that magazine sales started to decline at a serious rate long before the internet made any sort of serious penetration in Japan. Most titles peaked around 1995 to 1996 and have been free-falling ever since. The internet never really reached significant diffusion rates in Japan until the early 21st century, by which time, magazines had already been in decline for a half-decade. Most importantly, the rates of decline for the titles above were steady show no serious dips once the internet kicks in.

In general, comparing “the internet” and “magazines” is difficult since there are hardly any “web magazines” in Japan that can claim to provide the same kind of information as magazines at the same high quality. In the case of Tokyo Walker, the internet does a fantastic job at putting movie timetables and restaurant maps at right your fingertips — making the print magazine less efficient and basically irrelevant. For fashion magazines, however, it’s a different story. Internet media has yet to prove an authoritarian status. More than just kids wanting to see the latest styles in fashion magazines, they wanted to know which styles have the blessing of the editors — and as an extention, society at large. Internet rivals to non•no may be popping up somewhere, but at this point, brand new web-magazines with the same content would have a hard time convincing young female readers that their consumption guidance is as “safe” as the old printed standard.

The second reason often stated for decline is a heterogenization of tastes. The Asahi article notes that magazines with and non•no are “general” young female readership magazines and do not have specialized audiences. Dentsu magazine analyst Kira Toshihiko is quoted in Asahi as stating that “In the past, it was ‘I will read this because others are reading it.’ Now ‘a me different from others’ has made a presence, and this plays into magazine selection.” Essentially, this theory posits that readers are turning away from magazines, because the identity created through adherence to a specific magazine lifestyle would create a result to close to the identities of others.

Certainly, the Japanese consumer has become less hesitant towards individual preference over time, but the recent success of the young women’s fashion magazine Can Cam strongly challenges a wide application of Kira’s idea. Sales have risen for Can Cam in the last few years at the expense of rival titles. Between the high issue sales, the ubiquity of the “Can Cam look on the streets, and the widespread popularity of the magazine’s models Ebihara Yuri and Yamada Yu, the total popularity of the consumer lifestyle shows that a certain segment of Japanese society — mostly junior college students, university students, and first-year OLs — want to be a part of a fashion lifestyle with lots and lots of other people. The Can Cam reader may not be specifically attracted to the magazine because of the look’s massive presence in the market, but surely they are not reading it because they want to create more distinction between themselves and others.

So what is the reason for a decline in magazine sales? Most definitely, the population decline means less young people, and this has hurt almost all of the major content industries which depend on young consumers. We should also consider the idea that the drop in consumer budgets during this long recessionary and weak economic period caused consumers to need less in guidance in where to spend their discretionary income. Other than the stable “young single female market” that makes up the Can Cam subculture, young people are no longer the leaders in Japanese consumption. Things may have gotten so bad that kids don’t even want to drop ¥600 on the magazine itself, but moreover, who needs fashion guides to construct ¥100,000 outfits of all the hottest brands when you don’t have ¥100,000 lying around? For most of the fashion and lifestyle magazines in Japan, the content is almost exclusively informational guides to products and services rather than essays, articles, interviews, or critique. Magazines are thus entertaining — like window-shopping — but also highly educational in regards to the latest trends, the proper way to style clothes, and which particular brands and items are “essential” for the season. Without the pocket money to act upon this practical guidance, however, these magazines are certainly not worth their cover price.

Although this theory cannot explain the drop in the weekly news and gossip shukanshi‘s sales, one cannot ignore the fact that the fashion and magazine markets peaked at the exact same time — in 1996 — and have been falling steadily ever since. Fashion consumption and fashion magazines have always gone hand-in-hand in Japan, and their decline should thus also be related.

Whatever the case, Japanese magazine publishers have an uphill battle to keep themselves relevant and prospering in an increasingly diverse and desperate market. Clearly, one solution is to follow the success stories of Can Cam and men’s magazine Leon in creating a solid brand identity that matches perfectly with a specific market segment flush with spending money. Otherwise the current market trends are going to sweep the unfocused and unbranded titles right away to sea.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.