The publishers of most of the big dailies in Southern California are engaged in a big food fight.
They aren’t throwing around cottage cheese and chili surprise, of course, but their weekly food sections.
The fight is to bring supermarket advertisers back to the fold. Due to consolidation in the grocery industry and a decision by some supermarket chains to concentrate more on direct mailers, newspapers are hurting. Even the mighty Los Angeles Times is making editorial changes as a result.
In late January, the Times, the Daily News of Los Angeles and the San Diego Union-Tribune all moved their weekly food sections from the Thursday paper to Wednesday’s.
“The big advertising day for supermarkets is shifting from Thursdays to Wednesdays, and consumers are planning their weekly shopping earlier,” said Janis Heaphy, senior vice president of advertising for the L.A. Times, in the paper’s official announcement of the change.
The Times suffered a serious blow to its supermarket advertising last year. According to New York-based Competitive Media Reporting, the L.A. Times’ 1996 ad revenues in the Food Stores/Supermarket Chains category fell to $14.4 million down from $20.2 million in 1995.
The food sections at the Times and other dailies were apparently moved to accommodate some of the big chains particularly Compton-based Ralphs Grocery Co., which last fall began unleashing its weekly advertising blitz on Wednesdays instead of Thursdays.
“It gives the shoppers an extra day to look through the paper for specials, and do their shopping earlier in the week,” said Ralphs spokesman Terry O’Neil.
Customer traffic patterns at Ralphs stores have undergone a shift in recent years, O’Neil said. Although Saturdays and Sundays are still the biggest shopping days of the week, the stores have been generating increasing traffic on weeknights.
“I think a lot of it has to do with all the two-income families out there,” O’Neil said. “On Saturdays and Sundays, they’re out playing soccer with the kids or something. So they have to buy groceries on weeknights.”
Not all of the big chains agree with Ralphs. Arcadia-based Vons Cos. Inc. still starts its weekly advertised specials on Thursdays, according to spokesman Doug Hendrix. Most Vons ads run in the front sections of local newspapers, rather than in the food section.
If nothing else, the food section moves show how much weight supermarket chains have with local newspapers. Food-sellers were the 13th-biggest advertiser industry group for the L.A. Times in 1996, according to CMR, down from the 11th-largest in 1995. Auto dealers were the No. 1 advertiser industry group for the paper both years.
“At last, it seems maybe the L.A. Times is changing to respond to advertiser needs,” said an exasperated Brian Fernee, president of Beverly Hills-based media buying agency RNF Media Inc. “They’re not the easiest paper to deal with. They usually know what’s best for everybody.”
As for the Daily News, Editor David Butler said the plans to move the food section were in place long before his Jan. 6 arrival at the paper, but he agrees with the switch. Most newspapers in other regions already publish their food sections on Wednesdays, he said.
“I was a little surprised when I came out here and found that food sections were running on Thursdays,” said Butler, who was previously editor of the New Haven Register in Connecticut. “I think this just sort of gets the local papers, and maybe California as a whole, into the norm of the rest of the country.”
Auto firms hit brakes
Supermarket chains weren’t the only advertisers to make severe cutbacks in their print ad expenditures last year. Jumping off the page on CMR’s report about the L.A. Times was the massive decrease in ad spending by import auto manufacturers.
Ad revenues from such companies dropped from $24 million in 1995 to $7.1 million in 1996, according to CMR. That translates to 43,635 inches of import auto ads in 1995 in the L.A. Times, compared with 12,199 last year.
It must be pointed out that CMR’s ad revenue estimates don’t match the numbers released by the Times itself.
According to CMR, the L.A. Times generated a total of $965.1 million in advertising revenues in 1996. However, the Times says it had taken in $1.4 billion by Dec. 1 (year-end figures had not been released as of late last week). CMR spokesman Dan Prince said the discrepancy exists because CMR does not count most classified ad revenues in its total.
The dramatic change in automotive ad revenues on CMR’s report may indicate that a shift in priorities is taking place among import automakers. The Times, however, says the numbers are flat wrong.
“Those numbers make no sense at all,” said Times spokeswoman Laura Morgan, who ran CMR’s report past the paper’s advertising director Larry Klein. “In fact, automotive advertising is up, and import is a big part of that.”
The drop reported by CMR only applies to the manufacturers; revenues from auto dealers, the most important industry category for the Times and most newspapers, was strong last year, according to CMR. The report states that auto dealers and dealer associations spent $266.9 million to advertise in the L.A. Times last year, up from $233.7 million in 1995.