The cover of the December 2008 issue of Style at Home, the 12-year-old shelter title published by Transcontinental, features an elegant white-on-white tableau tastefully accented by what a coverline deems “glam­ourous greenery”-a 30-inch wreath of salal and camel­lia leaves accented with silver apple ornaments-all set off by a pair of lamps with gold shades and, for a touch of whimsy, an antique birdcage. As you flip through this 192-page issue, there are several double-page-spread ads-IKEA, Kraft-before the two back-to-back contents pages. These tout the usual array of articles, organized into five categories: home, style, shopping, entertaining and “regulars,” which includes everything from Window Shopping (this issue, it’s Christmas stockings) to So Sim­ple (clever paper tricks for holiday gifts and decorations). Past the masthead, which lists 23 editorial employees, and Gail Johnston Habs’s editor’s column, Home Page, is the popular High/Low feature. This month it presents two similar “chic bedroom[s] for a little princess,” the high version priced at $5,764; the low at $2,302.

It isn’t until just after page 71, though, that you hit the real low: a full-page ad for the Kraft-owned, Bosch-manufactured Tassimo brewer “hot beverage system.” On the right, an acetate sheet printed with this device makes it appear it’s gracing the counter of a kitchen that’s part of a five-page editorial takeout on the home of Citytv news anchor Anne Mroczkowski.

Is this blatant contravention of two of the Canadian magazine industry’s guidelines regarding the separation of editorial and advertising a sign that trouble is brewing in the usually recession-proof shelter sector?

Untillatewinter there were three major national English-language shelter magazines-industry parlance for titles about home décor. Canadian House & Home is the largest, not just in overall size but in circulation, which is currently 259,000 per issue. In 1984 Lynda Reeves and her then husband invested in the magazine and eventually purchased the title a year later. She was an interior decorator when she took over in 1986 and later became publisher. The Reeveses split some time ago, but the magazine is still independent, and its brand is now attached to the House & Home with Lynda Reeves TV show and House & Home Style for Living Home products. The magazine is notable for its lavish covers and articles that often depict the beautifully decorated homes of the rich, famous and fabulous, including Canadian actress Kathleen Robertson’s vacation oasis in Palm Springs and HGTV’s Peter Fallico’s transformation of a dowdy Toronto house into an “airy, contemporary living space that showcases a mix of modern and traditional.” Last year this visual bonbon carried close to 1,500 ad pages-more than many magazines’ entire book size.

Style at Home, Canada’s second-ranking shelter maga­zine in circulation, was created in 1997 when parent Transcontinental repositioned its predecessor, Cana­dian Select Homes. In 2008, its per-issue circulation was 237,000, and its readership was 1,716,000-about 800,000 lower than Canadian House & Home‘s. Accord­ing to long-time publisher Deborah Trepanier, “It focuses very much on the interiors and that kind of ‘you can do it’ inspiration and accessibility.” The Style at Home reader might run up her own curtains, while Canadian House & Home‘s audience is more likely to turn to a decorator. But in other respects, the two books are similar: House & Home‘s version of High/Low is called More or Less and Canadian House & Home‘s Finds section is mir­rored by Style at Home‘s Home & Style, each of which highlights new products. Overall, Doug Bennet, publisher of Masthead (now an online-only publication), feels Style at Home tends to be slightly more “informational” while Canadian House & Home is more “inspirational.”

Smallest in circulation and youngest of the three was Canadian Home & Country, which started life as Cen­tury Home in 1984, was re-launched as Home & Country in 2002 by new owner Avid Media Inc. and bought by Transcontinental in 2004. In January it was repositioned yet again, the most obvious change being a total makeover. While the content remained mostly unchanged, the magazine’s frequency was cut from eight times a year to six. Editor Erin McLaughlin, who had been with the book since the Avid purchase, was assigned to edit both Home & Country and sister-title Canadian Gardening, whose frequency has dropped from eight times yearly to seven.

Even before any recession-related impact, this title was much less robust than the older magazines, with a per-issue circulation of just 135,000, and ad sales of not quite 325 pages in 2008. Magazine circulation expert Jon Spencer said of the rollback in the publishing schedule: “A reduction of frequency is usually an attempt to man­age the bottom line a bit more effectively.” Translation: chances are the magazine was losing money.

Over the last decade, economic downturns spared shelter books. After the dotcom blowout of 2000, Bill Shields, former editor of Masthead, notes, “We saw this great period of expansion for shelter titles.” Post Septem­ber 11, people travelled less. Instead of spending $3,000 or $4,000 on a holiday, they put that money into their home. The same pattern held in the United States.

There are ominous signs, though, that this time is different, just as the early ’90s saw the demise of Comac Communications’ Ontario Living and Maclean Hunter’s City and Country Home and other shelter titles. Since the beginning of 2008, Martha Stewart Living’s Blueprint, Hearst’s O at Home, Hachette Filipacchi’s Home, Time Inc.’s Cottage Living, Meredith Corporation’s Country Home and Condé Nast’s Vogue Living all folded.

The biggest shocker occured earlier in 2007, when Condé Nast announced the demise of its venerableHouse & Garden, launched in 1901, was closed. For the surving titles, a few-like VerandaHouse Beautifuland Elle Décor-ended 2008 with ad sales declines of less than 10 percent. Others, including Dwell andCountry Living, showed average drops of 15 percent or, in the case of Country Home, just over 30 percent. This January, Condé Nast announced it would stop publishing the three-year-old shopping and home décor magazine Domino as of March. There hasn’t been as much of a shakeout in the Canadian market, at least yet. In November 2008 though, St. Joseph Media shut down Wish and Gardening Life, both of which relied heavily on retail advertising, as shel­ter magazines also do. Then, in mid-February, Transcon announced it was folding Home & Country, even while the relaunch issue was still on newsstands.

Not surprisingly, insiders like Deborah Trepanier, publisher of Style at Home and the late Home & Country, say they are upbeat about the future of shelter magazines. “I think people are always going to be house-proud,” Trepanier says confidently. “They are maybe not going to be thinking of moving,” she adds, instead suggesting, “They are going to think, ‘Now what can I do?'”

Kirby Miller, senior vice president and general man­ager of House & Home Media, is equally sanguine. He feels House & Home has “become a bit recession-proof in terms of content. When people are buying newer and bigger houses we’re going to get that market and when things aren’t so great, they are staying home and renovat­ing and not buying luxuries but still want their home to look good.” The same goes for Style at Homeeditor Gail Johnston Habs: “The whole cocooning and nesting idea is even stronger during soft economies.”

But cocooning doesn’t necessarily equal consum­ing. Cindy Foresto, a 48-year-old production specialist with Magna International Inc., who lives in Oakville, is a long-time shelter reader, she admits, “I probably won’t buy them as much, because I won’t have any money to do the things I see.” Her favourite Canadian title is Style at Home, which she used to buy every other month or so because of its elaborate covers and local sources. “I really like anything to do with renos, especially the before-and-after spreads,” she says.

Like Foresto, Kim Ferguson, a 50-year-old dietary aide in Midland, Ontario, appreciates that Style at Homeand House & Home point her to the sources of items featured. “I also like to keep up to date on the latest trends and paint colours.” Although she’s been a shelter book fan for 20 years, she admits that her reading may soon be confined to supermarket checkout lines.

Karn Graham, 48, a Toronto homemaker, isn’t planning to cut décor magazines from her media diet completely. She’s used to turning to them when she wants to update something or seek ideas of how she can reuse what she already has at home. She’ll likely continue to subscribe to House & Home because it’s become “a force of habit,” but imagines she’ll be buying fewer magazines at the newsstand. Like other readers, she considers shelter titles “an escape and relaxation tool,” and feels this is why others won’t stop buying them, either: “I like to look in them and say, ‘Oh, wow! That’s a great idea,’ and then look around for the item or idea a little cheaper.”

But with magazines themselves unless you subscribe, you can’t look around and find them a little bit cheaper-you either pay the cover price ($5.95 and $5.50 for House & Home and Style at Home, respectively) or you don’t get the issue. For some time fewer people have been buying at the newsstands. As Spencer notes, there has been a downward trend in sales since about 1995, and that seems to have accelerated in the past two years. Publishers have responded by cutting the number of magazines sent to stands. “If your number of units selling is going down, people try to put fewer copies out there so the sell-through rate will improve. That doesn’t work for all magazines; it works to some extent for larger publishers,” Spencer concludes.

Worse, magazines tend to be leading indicators at the top of a recession and lagging indicators at the end, and the signs aren’t good. In 2006, House & Home carried close to 1,700 ad pages, according to Leading National Advertisers (LNA), an advertising tracking service. Last year, the number had fallen by almost 200.Home & Country‘s count dropped from 377 to 323. Style at Home‘s pages fell from 1021 to 989. The first two months of this year followed suit: 57 to 56 pages for House & Home in January and 68 to 55 in February; 39 to 33 in January and 44 to 29 pages in February for Style at Home. Home & Country, which doesn’t publish in January, showed a slide from 35 to 24 in February, despite the relaunch.

Some media buyers remain fairly optimistic about the category. Crystal Oxley, an account director at ZenithOp­timedia, points out that, for example, House & Home is a top performer and therefore anyone looking to buy ad space targeting women 25 to 54 is going to turn to this title. Brenda Bookbinder, vice president group account director for PHD Canada, isn’t as upbeat. “The finan­cial crisis isn’t going to do Canadian shelter titles any favours,” she says, but notes that “a lot of advertisers have the attitude that they have to advertise during this time and that the advertisers and brands that are most successful after the recession are the ones that adver­tised and reminded people about their brand during the recession.”

Like Kraft’s Tassimo brewer. Joy Sanguedolce, strategy director with MediaVest, a division of Starcom MediaVest Group (SMG), explains that in today’s economic climate “marketers have to do everything in their power to break through, especially in a weakening economy. Where an advertiser can really stand out and connect to a con­sumer, it will be to their benefit at the end of the day.” Sanguedolce was involved in the creation of the Tassimo ad that saw the product land on an editorial countertop in Style at Home. She believes the ethics-challenging ad constituted a breakthrough of another kind: “It’s really taking a static medium, print, and making it more dynamic, more interactive and highly engaging.”

Sanguedolce notes the reports of falling ad sales but is still optimistic: “I think people will still look to shelter magazines for eye candy and inspiration. You may not be able to afford that $2,000 chair, but it does give you a sense of what you may be able to accomplish for less.”

One hopes. But as problems continue to percolate through the industry, some titles are still waking up to smell the profits.

Over at the “recession-proof” House & Home, Miller suggests that Canada’s shelter titles won’t be hit as hard as those in the United States because this country hasn’t suffered the same mortgage crisis-an inevitable damper on home-geared publications. While he admits Canadian House & Home‘s LNA numbers are down slightly, he doesn’t seem to be worried.

Despite the uncertain economy, House & Home went ahead with plans to launch a French-language version called Maison & Demeure at the end of January. According to Miller, the company set modest circulation targets for the first year, but exceeded them within the first month. And the business is growing rather than shrinking. “Every time I turn around here, there’s another new person,” he says. “We have opened up a new office in Quebec and we have about 11 people working there.” Miller also points to the federal Home Renovation Tax Credit announcement in the January budget as a blessing for shelter books like his. In short, he talks like only someone with money in a recession can. “This is an opportunity,” he says. “When things turn around, we will be well positioned for big, big growth.” The prospect of future expansion hasn’t been enough to keep House & Home from playing nice with an advertiser, though. Its March 2009 issue featured a Swiffer ad that rivaled the Tassimo spot for blurring the advertising/editorial divide. Also the work of Starcom, the offending creative infringed on an editorial takeout on laundry rooms. The opening spread features a right-hand page of an otherwise spotless room in which muddy footprints track across the floor. Turn the page and there’s the same photo, but with a clean floor and a Swiffer device propped against the counter. Prominent copy declares: “Swiffer gives cleaning a whole new meaning.”

Christine Saunders, senior vice president, group media director for Proctor & Gamble ad agency SMG, toldMarketing magazine in February: “What we love about it is that it’s a surprise for the clever reader. You literally do a double-take.”

Kirby Miller loved it, too. In the same month he unapologetically told Masthead, “In large part it is our key advertisers to thank in this market for our continuing ability to affordably deliver great decorating content to our Canadian subscribers and newsstand purchasers. House & Home along with the rest of the magazine industry is working hard to remain economi­cally viable in this market.”

But when the market revives, both House & Home and Style at Home will have to put on the hot beverage system, haul out the mopping solution and engage in a serious scrub down.