Living it Up

Seems South Africa’s niche lifestyle magazines – a sector encompassing décor, food, property and gardening – are in boom time. Fed by increasing demand from readers and advertisers, new titles appear next to old favourites with surprising frequency. But is the boom sustainable, or are consumers too spoiled for choice?

According to VISI editor Sumien Brink, the number of titles is sure proof of the health of the sector. ”Adspend has increased over the past three years, and growth shows no sign of halting, despite the fact that an ever-growing number of titles are competing for that spend.”

Are editors concerned? Some are. Some aren’t. Says Angela Brooks, editor of Food and Home Entertaining, ”I don’t believe the market is overcrowded. There may be several titles each targeting a similar reader, but they all offer something distinctly different.”

Indeed, there’s big variety within the niche. Food and Home Entertaining covers all aspects of entertaining, from whipping up meals to ensuring kitchens are equipped with trendy accessories. Garden & Home prides itself on featuring exclusively ”home grown” content, while House & Leisure aims to be both aspirational and accessible. That’s in contrast to Habitat, which speaks directly to upper income earners.

Elle Decoration has built a reputation based on international connections, which it combines with distinctly South African appeal. ”We’re also the only South African magazine that puts our full support behind the local design industry with the Solve Campaign, aimed at nurturing student talent, the Wow Campaign, which recognises top items already in production, and the Elle Decoration Design Awards,” says editor Kerryn Du Preez.

Then there are the Afrikaans magazines. VISI is widely regarded as the pioneer in this segment, and the pioneering streak continues with the launch of an English edition. Newcomer Tuis is also playing here, as is Tuinpaleis, which features a combination of décor and gardening articles. Tuinpaleis stands out from others because up to one third of its content is advertorial; a model first introduced, and used with tremendous success, by SA Home Owner.

And, finally, the special interest publications: SA Gardening, the subcontinent’s first specialist gardening publication, and The Property Magazine, which publisher Tony Vaughan is punting as unique in its own right. ”Unlike décor magazines, which focus on paint, fabric, furniture and the like, we look at how to make your property more valuable in very real, monetary terms. Key topics include where to invest and what architects can do to make your home more attractive.”

So the choice is vast – but what’s driving all the interest in lifestyle? ”The economy,” says Garden & Home editor Les Abercrombie. ”Interest rates are down, so a lot of people are buying homes – and wanting to learn how to decorate them. At the same time, there are those who don’t have the money to buy new property, so they renovate – and they look to magazines for new ideas.”

Kay Montgomery of SA Gardening and Tuinpaleis has a different answer. ”A few years ago, trendspotter Faith Popcorn coined the phrase ‘cocooning’. South Africans are still cocooning – they want to escape the rush of the outside world and return to their roots. Quite simply, they want to retreat to the safety of their homes.”

Habitat‘s Colin Sharp agrees. ”Increasingly, people are wanting to spend time in their own spaces. But they’re becoming more discerning – they don’t want that space to be decorated by an interior designer. They want to be able to plan their own spaces.”

That’s important, he adds, because those spaces are becoming smaller, and people are therefore forced to use them more intelligently. Fortunately, South Africans are becoming more adventurous in their tastes – probably a result of their increasing exposure to international trends, thanks to travel. This, of course, is another driving factor.

It’s only recently, however, that South Africans have been granted access to international insights. Black South Africans, in particular, are taking advantage of the country’s new status, and many are eager to use lifestyle magazines to give them tips and pointers. ”Which is why so many magazines have a climbing black readership,” points out Kerry Haggard, managing editor of SA Home Owner.

But can this readership be sustained? ”Pundits say the property bubble is unlikely to burst in the near future, so people will continue to buy and decorate their homes. There is a huge, previously untapped market of first time homeowners who are starting to buy property and will be looking to educate themselves through magazines,” Vaughan says.

Not so, says Abercrombie. The bubble may not burst soon, but burst it will – and there will be casualties. And Sharp’s concern is for those publications that fail to attract their slice of the advertising pie.

Which is why Abercrombie believes magazines must adopt a new revenue model. ”We need to start increasing our circulations, as the [general] print advertising pie is getting smaller.”

There is, however, another model currently making waves in the industry. Pioneered by SA Home Owner, this advertorial-based approach sees each feature sponsored by suppliers. ”This approach works, because the magazine functions almost as a directory providing the reader with practical information,” Haggard explains.

The Property Magazine also favours the advertiser-focused approach. ”South Africa’s retailer shelves are overcrowded. We offer our advertisers a new space to display their products, that of the consumer’s home, with 40,000 magazines distributed free each month to homes in the Western Cape,” says Vaughan. This distribution is complemented by additional retail sales and distribution in SAA airport lounges and leading hotels. Has the concept worked? ”Definitely – in October, we will be doubling our print run, due to demand from the Gauteng market.”

Which model will prove the most effective? Only time will tell, but for the moment the sector’s trajectory doesn’t look like slowing. ”There’s still plenty of room for growth,” affirms House & Leisure‘s new editor, Kate Wilson. ”Food is already mushrooming, as is travel, because it is now easier for South Africans to go overseas. Design is another potential growth sector, but it has yet to attain the same status it enjoys overseas.”

Says Brooks: ”It’s an exciting time to be involved in the industry. South Africans are developing their own style, but at the same time, we’re open to learning about what other countries have to offer. Driven by our passion, we’re bound to go forward very quickly.”

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