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Is the Pandemic the Last Nail in the Coffin for Print Circulars?

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There are few ad formats more enduring than the weekly pricing, products, sales and coupons reflected in circulars. Circulars have been a fixture for both retailers and CPG marketers for decades, serving as one of the first ways to accurately measure the impact of print ads. Consumers who cut out the coupon and brought it back to the store had indisputably seen and been influenced by the print promotion.

Decades before digital marketing ate the world, circulars gave marketers and retailers some of their first insight into what influenced consumer behavior, drove sales and increased foot traffic. Circulars trained consumers to look for, and use, weekly ads. However, the migration from print to digital has dented the primacy of the printed circular, and the COVID-19 pandemic might have delivered the final fatal blow.

The change hasn’t happened all at once. Coupon circulars have remained influential. An Oracle study on ‘The Circular Revolution – Changing the Consumer Communications Landscape’ found that “When asked to rank several key factors in deciding where to shop, Sale Items were ranked a close second behind Convenience and ahead of Quality of Products, Coupon Usage, Fresh Deli/Produce and Store Cleanliness.”

These results highlight the enduring impact of coupons on brick-and-mortar retail. However, print circulation and ad revenue have been on a steady decline for decades. In 2019 U.S. newspaper circulation hit an all-time low, dipping to 28.6 million for weekday and 30.8 million for Sunday, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, a year-over-year decline of 8% and 9% respectively. Similarly, as businesses tightened their spending due to the economic impact of COVID-19, circulation revenue declined even further last year. 

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Pandemic Impact

In a Jan. 16, 2021 email blast to customers, pharmacy retailer CVS announced that its “weekly ad is going digital” and its print circular was going away as of Jan. 31. Retail rival Walgreens suspended distribution of its Sunday print circular  in June 2020, telling the Path to Purchase Institute that “In light of the accelerated consumer behavior shifts driven by COVID-19, the weekly circular will transition exclusively to digital as we temporarily suspend the printed version as we look to enable more agile ways to meet customer needs.”

Supermarket giant Meijer took similar steps in early 2020, announcing a temporary suspension of its weekly circular beginning Easter Sunday, April 12. The stated purpose of the move was to reduce foot traffic in Meijer stores in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. The news came a day before the mass merchant dropped its April 5 circular, which at four pages was much shorter than the usual 10 to 20 Sunday pages. The combined impact of shifting consumer behavior and proactive attempts to promote more public health-conscious shopping has led to the biggest circular reduction since the start of reporting in 1940.

What’s Next for Retailers?

As the pandemic drags on and a print circulation rebound feels far off, retailers need to find new alternatives to reach and influence customers with deals and promotions. For many, this will mean looking to new distribution channels to disseminate their weekly ad circular content.

Social channels, with their massive scale and reach, provide an attractive option for retailers looking to replace print. Roughly 55% of U.S. consumers report that they are cooking at home more than they did prior to the pandemic, and many of these newly minted home chefs are turning to social channels like Facebook (1.85 billion Daily Active Users), Instagram (1 billion DAU), Pinterest (442 Monthly Active Users), Snapchat (90 million DAU), and TikTok (20.3 million DAU) for tips, recipes, and inspiration. This focused interest creates an ideal environment for CPG and grocery retailers looking for an audience that is, if anything, more engaged with their products than ever before.

Beyond pure distribution, social platforms offer unique data-driven personalization and targeting capabilities far beyond those of print. Of particular interest to grocery, retail and CPG marketers are tools that allow hyperlocal targeting. Ads can point users to nearby stores, promote items that are in stock and even deliver store-specific offers based on users’ expressed preferences and behaviors.

Unlike print circulars, which are ultimately a spray-and-pray tactic that aims to reach a large audience with an undifferentiated set of offers, new platforms can target users with specific offers based on a wide range of criteria. Marketers can build and target highly specific audience segments with specialized offers. For value buyers, a pitch for lower priced items and discounts, “meals to go” for time-starved parents, and for the health and wellness conscious consumer, organic and specialty foods.

Finally, while print circulars may have been one of the first truly measurable formats in advertising history, they can’t hold a candle to the digital measurability of today. Social platforms offer granular metrics to help marketers assess the performance of ads and offers, optimize creative and content, and continually appraise impact on digital and in-store sales, all of which are critical to driving results in a period of economic challenges.

Ultimately, while the pandemic might herald the death, or at least the temporary dormancy of the printed coupon circular, the possibilities for CPG retailers across new digital channels have only begun to make themselves fully known.


Dave Donnelly is the VP of Sales at StitcherAds. An accomplished leader in the digital sales industry, Donnelly brings over 20 years of relevant experience, with a focus on video, programmatic media, social, OTT, personalization, first-party data, and delivering marketing outcomes for leading CPG and retail accounts. At StitcherAds, Donnelly leads sales efforts, focusing on strategic retail accounts in the U.S. region. Donnelly previously served as SVP of Sales at Eyeview as well as VP, Sales at CVS Media Exchange. Earlier, he was the VP, Sales at Auditude (which was acquired by Adobe in 2011).  Donnelly also served for 10 years at AOL where he held various sales and management positions.

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