How One Family Newsstand Stays Afloat Despite Industry Decline

by Neil Cotiaux

3 min read

Read all about it: America’s newsstands may be down for the count, but don’t count out Jim and Carol Sturges, owners of The City News in Wooster, Ohio.

According to the Alliance for Audited Media, single-copy sales of 386 U.S. magazine titles fell 11 percent year over year for the last six months of 2013. During the same period, digital editions rose 37 percent.

“Where’s the bottom?” wonders John Harrington, publisher of The New Single Copy newsletter, about declining hard-copy sales.

With print sales down about 50 percent over the past six years, many magazine distributors and newsstands have been forced to close, he says.

Beating the Odds

But in the Buckeye State, The City News owners have spent the past quarter-century battling competition, recession, and the rise of digital information. Against tough odds, they’ve remained in business while keeping their customers happy, offering unmatched selection and personal service.

Jim Sturges, 50, learned the business from his father, Ivan, who first operated a sidewalk newsstand before merging it with a competitor in 1969. Taking his business inside, Ivan stocked everything from The Times of London to the local paper and also offered canned goods and tobacco, as well as serving malts and floats at the counter.

When Ivan passed away in 1985, Jim, then 20, took charge. “There was no competition per se,” he says.

That soon changed. Gas stations, supermarkets, and big-box stores began selling magazines, so Jim and Carol hammered out a battle plan.

While other retailers offered around 100 titles, the Sturgeses had access to thousands of publications, peaking at a total offering of 3,200 different titles. “You came here, you came to a newsstand,” Jim recalls with pride.

“I want every single puzzle book that you own,” Carol Sturges remembers telling her distributor. “Some people devour those things.”

To attract more patrons and cross-sell to a wider audience, the couple added an electronic bill-pay system, drawing in younger customers to supplement regular magazine purchasers, many of whom are in their 50s.

“It brings foot traffic in,” Jim says. “The sales it creates are higher-profit sales.”

The City News also sells lottery tickets. “You make a nickel on a dollar” but build profits through sales of other items, Jim says.

Cigars and sundries comprise the store’s second-biggest revenue stream, behind magazines.

“There was a really large cigar boom in the early ’90s,” Jim remembers. Switching from domestic to premium cigars, The City News now features the only walk-in humidor in Wayne County.

Today, The City News pockets 27 percent of each magazine sale, enjoys a retail allowance for certain shelf placements, and receives credit on returns. Forty percent of the store’s gross income derives from print sales, the couple says.

Its scope of offerings is as diverse as what you’d find in Chicago, says newsletter publisher Harrington — no surprise given that The City News sells approximately $150,000 a year in magazines.

Personalized service sets them apart, adds Garry Gibbons, 70, a former Ohio State faculty member who asked the Sturgeses to stock The Columbus Dispatch and who still drops in to buy collectibles magazines.

Turning the Page

While the recession stifled impulse buying, the rise of digital media poses longer-term consequences.

The City News used to carry The Washington Post, for example. “Now you just get on your smartphone and read it,” Jim Sturges laments.

And while some publishers like to see their magazines in the racks to boost circulation numbers, others are “pushing the digital end of it,” observes Scott Porter, owner of Mahoning Valley Distributing, which services The City News.

Porter calls the store “one of the few mom-and-pop newsstands that are left.”

In the current environment, the Sturgeses, assisted by one full-time and one part-time employee, have dropped some titles but continue to make a go of it.

“I really believe that within the next five to 10 years you’re only going to see a handful of magazines … probably what fits at the checkout counter,” Jim says. “At this point, we’re undecided about what direction we’re taking.”

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