High-profile magazines such as Playboy and Harper's Bazaar are already selling merchandise online. Fashion stalwarts Vogue and GQ, both part of the Conde Nast publishing empire, are planning to sell some of the wares that in the past they only wrote about.
The transition comes at a time when readership is down and newsstands are stacking up with competitors. Publishers are looking to the Web and e-commerce to restore this readership and to pump up profits.
"Commerce is going to be an increasingly important section of a magazines' online revenues," said Aram Sinnreich, an analyst with Jupiter Research. "I'm not saying print is going out of business any time soon, but [the traditional magazines] are going to have to recapture readers through new media and then figure how to get them to spend."
Spearheading the attack on e-tail is CondeNet, the Internet arm of Conde Nast. Many of the magazine sites that CondeNet runs--including Epicurious, Vogue, and GQ--will begin selling merchandise and services online by December, according to CondeNet director Sarah Chubb. CondeNet's Concierge.com already offers full travel services on its site.
Epicurious will begin selling housewares in a partnership with Williams-Sonoma beginning November 1, Chubb said. Visitors searching Epicurious for one of the site's 10,000 recipes will also find a listing of the Williams-Sonoma cooking utensils needed to cook it. "And Epicurious gets a cut of every sale," Chubb said.
Playboy.com sells its own brand of videos, apparel, and jewelry and has a partnership agreement with other retailers to sell gourmet food and cigars on the site.
Company spokeswoman Rebecca Theim said that retail sales accounted for $3 million, besting Playboy.com's other three revenue streams--advertising, subscription, and pay-per-view.
In the past, publishers balked at possibly annoying their readers with distracting banner ads or shuttling them away to the sites of retail partners. Technology has eased some of those problems.
Just last week, ScreamingMedia, a software company specializing in Web applications, announced that it developed software that allows an online magazine reader to click on a link and purchase goods without being transferred to a different site.
In this way, magazine readers are getting what interactive television promised in the early 1990s. Leading interactive companies for years said that the time would come when people could shop as they watched TV by clicking on the clothes worn by their favorite TV stars.
"Larry Ellison of Oracle had great pontifications about interactive TV back in 1992," said Jeff Huber, vice president of Engineer at Excite@Home. "The technology was not there."
The road to riches through retail is loaded with problems for publishers. One of the sore spots has been avoiding conflicts of interest.
The worry is that a magazine selling goods online can undermine its editorial credibility. How can a magazine that earned readers' trust with unbiased reporting or reviews retain that while they have a financial interest in those products and services?
That's why CondeNet is trying to keep the retail side of its magazines as far away from the editorial side as possible, Chubb said. Vogue and the other CondeNet magazines have balked at selling their own branded goods online.
"It may take the readers a little while, but they know when they are reading something that isn't editorially pure," Chubb said. "It hurts those magazines because they are giving away their credibility for a fast buck."