Amazon, John Lewis and the magazine business model

Consider the following, taken from a feature about online shopping by David Teather in yesterday's Guardian:

The likes of Amazon and Asos are facing increasing competition from the high-street brands, many of which are beginning to take online retailing more seriously. When John Lewis launched its website in 2001, the aim was to eventually generate the sales of a medium-sized store – about £100m. Last year they reached £327m, outstripping its most successful department store and accounting for about 13% of the John Lewis division of the group. Online sales continue to grow at about 30% a year.

Robin Terrell, managing director of John Lewis Direct, says the site has become increasingly important as around half of all shopping visits start with the website, as customers research prices and range. "The website now represents the brand. People are researching more and more online before visiting the shop and we have really been working to join up the customer experience."
When I read it a little bell went off and I thought, "What if you could forge a hypothesis for magazines based on that?"

So here it is.

Print magazines represent the bricks-and-mortar retailer, the keeper of the brand name. The online sites of those magazines represent the retail website, where people visit to do their research. If they like what they find they may then visit the material artefact (the print magazine).

Hmm, doesn't look quite so good out of my head and into type but there's something there. It's not a Murdochian (senior or junior) re-education programme, quite.

If it is true that people will visit a retail website before they make the further, and far more complicated and time-consuming, effort to visit the physical shop, then why should it not be possible, given the appropriate incentives and enticements, to do the same with a magazine in online and print forms?

The biggest question is why – if it is true – people do this? Why not just buy online if you can? Does John Lewis keep some things back for the shop only? Maybe they like visiting the shop? Maybe it becomes part of a larger "emotional" experience?

If we can find some answers to that (and I bet someone has them) perhaps we can forge some new hypotheses. We should certainly remember that print-on-paper has some advantages and pleasures to offer that online will never replicate, and play those up (yes, haptics again, but also lovely big pictures rich in detail, intricate graphics, ultimate put-down-ability).

Or perhaps I'm just suggesting the freemium business model, with online as the free product and print as the premium product.

But it's important to think about that relationship, and worth trying to find models elsewhere that can be adapted to the particular circumstances of magazines.