Commentary

What Consumer Spending Means For Publishers During Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has ripped up the playbook for everyone in the media industry. Many advertisers are slashing current spending and devising strategies to handle the shift of a public-health crisis into an economic mess.

The pandemic's effect on publishers will be as varied as it is on the global economy, with several industry segments suffering worse than others. The key indicators to watch will be consumer spending habits as people cope with enormous disruptions, such as state and local policies on "social distancing," business closures and job losses.

Yet, about 60% of consumer spending isn't going to change because of restrictions on people's daily activities, according to a report by Paul Donovan, UBS chief economist.

People are still going to spend most of their money on necessities at grocery stores, drugstores, mass merchants and gas stations that remain open during lockdowns. Many packaged-goods companies will need to get their messages across to consumers, many of whom are looking for trusted brands amid a time of heightened uncertainty.

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Publications that cater to women, including mothers who make most of the purchase decisions in their households, need to emphasize their connections with those audiences in their discussions with mass-market brands.

Some consumer product categories are in higher demand during the pandemic.

Forty percent of consumers are loading up on cleaning products, 37% are buying more canned goods and 27% are shopping for more personal-care products, according to a survey by researcher by GfK. That purchasing behavior is an opportunity for publications that reach those consumers.

Looking ahead, the overriding concern is how quickly the pandemic can be contained, and how disruptive it will be to the critical fall shopping season. While the summer months are traditionally the slowest for the media industry, back-to-school shopping ushers in a seasonal surge in media spending.

Fashion magazines typically have their biggest issues in September as the fall season gets under way. Store closures and social distancing can't be good for luxury brands that advertise in those publications, as Steve Cohn, a former colleague who covered the magazine business for 30 years at Media Industry Newsletter (MIN), pointed out to me in a conversation yesterday.

In discussing the outlook for the publishing industry and comparing the current crisis with past recessions, we agreed the pandemic presents many overwhelming challenges. The key developments to watch are COVID-19 containment and getting people back to work.

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