Up above the Times Square masses, in the rarefied atmosphere of the Frank Gehry-designed cafeteria, Conde Nast's largely female employees breakfast on egg-white omelettes made to order and talk, appropriately, about ... shopping. Men's shopping, to be precise.
It's a topic much on the minds of the revenue-challenged US magazine publishing industry, which is closely monitoring the March launch of Cargo, Conde Nast's first foray into the men's shopping genre. Published bi-monthly, aimed at the 25- to 45-year-old male and offering guidance on buying everything from socks to sports cars, its mission, according to the mighty Conde Nast PR machine, is to help readers spend their money wisely. And at a hefty 210 pages, 76 of which are ads, it's off to an impressive start.
First-issue advertisers include a mix of both high- and low-end retailers including Audi, Prada, Target, Grey Goose, HBO, Banana Republic and American Express. One ad, for Toyota, featured stickers to help readers flag items they like. Its cover consists not of the predictable babe, but a Lotus Elise. Editorial content includes eight-page spreads on digital video cameras and suits, as well as regular columns called "What a Girl Wants", written in a mocking, laddish voice.
By the end of this year, there will be a shelf of US magazines to help men shop. While traditional men's magazines such as Esquire and GQ have always delivered shopping advice, this is the first time men's shopping habits have been targeted so exclusively.
The genesis of Cargo can be found in the success of Lucky, the Conde Nast shopping megahit, whose circulation grew to more than 900,000 in its first three years, and which was Advertising Age's magazine of the year in 2003. That, plus the success of Bravo's runaway TV hit Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the rise of the much-vaunted metrosexual have made it all right for heterosexual men to shave their chest hair or to read What to Buy a Woman.
Originally touted as a male Lucky, Cargo offers more in-depth product analysis. "It's aimed at all men, anybody who likes gadgets, gear and clothes," Cargo's publisher, Alan Katz, says. "It's not for any stereotypical man or sexual orientation. After all, the Apple iPod doesn't care who buys it."
As for why now? Simple: it's a buoyant market. "There has been a paradigm shift in the amount of new products available," Katz says. Where there used to be five phones, now there are 50. "There's more choice than ever before - it's a revolutionary experience for men, who shop differently from women. They like more information and shop around before buying, calling it 'research'."
At its glitzy launch party, copies of Cargo came sealed inside hard plastic; Manhattan's newsstands sold products in Cargo bags; the Cargo logo emblazed the plastic cups and napkins street vendors use to sell their wares. Other marketing opportunities abound. The Cargo Caravan is a mobile marketing tour, designed to "hang out where the guys hang out". Katz says: "We want to help our advertisers get closer to prospects. Instead of getting a guy to come to us, we go out to music events, to financial districts and beaches to show him the latest from our advertisers." While the publishing company is known for its strict pricing policy and rarely offers individual discounts, high-spending advertisers get corporate discounts across several magazines.
But if Conde Nast is convinced of its viability, the jury of peers remains out. "While it's a great environment for some high-end brands, they haven't delivered on their promise," Brett Stewart, the senior vice-president and director of print services at Universal McCann, which had Bacardi, among other clients, in the first issue, says. "It was much clearer in the prototype. It needs to improve. With some clients, we're taking a wait-and-see attitude."
According to Jack Hanrahan, the director of US print operations at OMD, which had Infinity, Visa and HBO in the first issue, Cargo's chances of long-term success are good, for several reasons. "Clients like the promise of Cargo's editorial package," he says. "The editorial is detail-rich and honest. Conde Nast seldom stumbles, it supports its launches well and being the first in a category is usually an advantage." Its editor Ariel Foxman's track record is impressive, too. Lucky's April issue has more than 250 editorial pages and has paved a good path for Cargo.
Readers' verdicts have been mixed. The Washington Post lambasted it, deriding it as "cringe-inducing" in an article entitled: "Have you ever dipped into a woman's beauty product?" Key to its success is its reception across the country.
While men in New York and Los Angeles might go in for the back, sack and crack wax, it may not have the same appeal in Idaho or Nebraska.
After just one issue, it's too early to tell if the critics will be right.
After the ascendancy of the lad and teen magazines, there are high hopes for the dawn of the shopping magazine era. Another two, aimed at women, from Hearst and American Media, the publisher of the supermarket tabloid The Star, will hit the newsstands later this year.
Meanwhile, Katz is focused on the June issue. With more than 80 pages of ads already sold, many of which are being created especially for the title, he says no changes are planned. "We are keeping in the same spirit with the same columns," he says. "Our first issue taught us we were right on target."
US MEN'S SHOPPING MAGAZINES
Publisher: Conde Nast
Frequency: Six times in 2004
Ad pages: 97 in a 210-page issue
Full-page colour ad rate: $34,500
Cover price: $3.50
In September, Conde Nast's corporate sibling Fairchild, the publisher of
Women's Wear Daily and Details, will launch Vitals, a quarterly for
shoppers who favour Prada over Gap.
Publisher: Fairchild Publications
Full-page colour ad rate: $25,000
Cover price: $3.95
Launch date: September
For men more concerned about cool accessories than wardrobe basics, in
June Ziff Davis will debut Sync, a quarterly rundown of the new gadgets.
Publisher: Ziff Davis
Frequency: Four issues in 2004
Full-page colour ad rate: $20,000
Cover price: $3.99
Launch date: June 2004
Target audience: Males 25-44