Magazine gives women buying advice


For years, millions of shoppers have looked to Consumer Reports first before parting with their hard-earned money on purchases big and small.

Whether contemplating forking over $20,000 for a Pontiac Solstice or a mere $14 on a dozen Nike Power Distance Super Soft golf balls, readers - mostly male, mostly age 50 or older and mostly geeked-out about research - have come to rely on the advertising-free magazine to guide the comings and goings of the dough in their wallets.

But not content with an expansive reach of 4 million subscribers to the magazine and another 2 million unique subscribers online, the founders of Consumer Reports are now focusing their sights on capturing more readers of the female persuasion who are 30 and older and often the final arbiter on household spending.

To woo such notoriously busy and savvy shoppers, the publisher and independent non-profit product testing and consumer advocacy organization Consumers Union, based in Yonkers, N.Y., has introduced the new 96-page ShopSmart quarterly magazine this month.

Women shop more

"Consumer Reports is obviously a very successful magazine," says Lisa Lee Freeman, editor of Shop- Smart. "A lot of men who read Consumer Reports may be purchasing a couple things a year like a big-screen TV or a digital camera. Whereas the women of the house, by far, are the main purchasing agents of their households. They spend 7.4 hours a week shopping for the household.

"A lot of female readers are women with families, with careers and they are very, very busy," Freeman says. "They just want us to tell them the bottom line and they want to be smart about the purchases they're making. We have not reached this audience as effectively as we'd like, so we started ShopSmart specifically for this audience."

Chock-full of photos, how-to blurbs and a yellow banner declaring its affiliation with its super-powered parent publication, the ad-free ShopSmart targets its audience with 1,000 tested products geared toward a woman and her family's needs.

From the best organic body care products and closet organizers to the best laptops and baby seats, the magazine tells readers what to buy and what to avoid using fewer words, less clutter and more appealing, colorful graphics than Consumer Reports.

"ShopSmart gives you the bottom line: Here's the best of the best. Here are the essentials," Freeman says. "Our readers don't want to be bothered with a list of bad products. But we'll also tell you what not to buy or what's not safe when we test brands that people aspire to or think are best."

For example, ShopSmart tested 18 toasters and showcased only six of the best performers, including the $60 Cuisinart CPT-160 and $15 Proctor-Silex Cool-Touch 22450. It also informed readers that two of the most expensive toasters tested ranked among the lowest.

Observant readers will notice that some products in both magazines overlap, such as a recommendation against tossing a mop and bucket for a Scooba robotic floor mopper that appears in the new ShopSmart and the May issue of Consumer Reports.

Another repeat is a section on shopping in outlet stores, which also appeared in the May Consumer Reports. But where the older magazine took six pages to report its findings, ShopSmart imparts almost the same amount of information in three pages with a graphic that compares the look of two similar outfits, the price and also quality differences between store-bought and outlet-bought products.

"We're drawing from the same research pool as Consumer Reports, but we're not just repackaging information," Freeman says. "We use the same test labs to test our products, we talk to technicians, we read lab reports and we have additional research done. We test and include more products skewed toward women."

"This is basically niche marketing," says Steve W. Frye, who heads Frye Publications Consulting in Hailey, Idaho. "I'm a little baffled as to why Consumer Reports needs to do this at a time when shopping magazines are closing, but I'm sure they've done the market research to support this move."

While it is true that shopping magazines such as Cargo for men from Conde Nast Publications and Vitals Man and Vitals Woman from Fairchild Publications, a division of Conde Nast, have all closed recently, magazine consultant Samir Husni says ShopSmart's ties to its reputable parent magazine put it well ahead of the pack.

"If you look at Consumer Reports, you're looking at a shopping magazine - but one for the whole family," says Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi. "In ShopSmart, they're taking a unique approach to a woman's magazine with no advertising. ... We'll have to wait and see how the market responds, but the brand extension alone is a big, major thing."

Loosen up

Husni says the only major fault he finds with the new venture is "It's too stiff for a shopping magazine. They need to loosen up and relax the style a little more. The first issue looks too clinical."

The assessment isn't surprising since Consumer Reports built its reputation on a staid, no-nonsense format meant to inform, not dazzle readers. The 70-year- old magazine does not use advertising and does not accept freebies to test products. ShopSmart operates in the same manner, albeit with a fresher layout. While the older publication relies mostly on subscriptions to fund its work, ShopSmart will rely on newsstand sales and Consumers Union for financial support at this early stage.

Freeman says if the first 800,000 issues of the magazine, which sell at $4.99 a copy, sell well and demand grows, ShopSmart could become available by subscription in the future.

"It's a logical step for Consumer Reports," Husni says. "I'm only really surprised by the lateness of them doing this, because it's really their area of expertise."

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