It’s 9:30 A.M. on a blue-sky Wednesday in December, and while most of Toronto’s urbanites are settling into desks and cubicles across the city, a zealous crowd is gathering at the Garment Factory Lofts in an industrial strip in the east end. Here, showcasing racks heavy with furs, satins, and leathers in a blur of colours, is an event dreamed about by both the chic and the thrifty – the Elsa Reia sample sale, a four-day opportunity for Canadian designers to show off their work and for Toronto shoppers to buy at low prices. The third-floor loft is dressed up like a wintry department store in a forest of white, leafless trees haloed by upturned spotlights. But the bustling mob pays no heed. Thirty minutes in, towering boxes of shoes and stacks of sweaters are teetering as women ransack them for the right size. It’s a psychotropic experience for a casually dressed non-shopper like me.

Fortunately, I have a guide. Dara Fleischer leads me from shoes to coats to bags to sweaters. She is so tiny that even in her black leather pants, she looks feminine. It could be the soft-pink sweater she has paired with them and the faux-fur, aquamarine necklace that cushions a single string of pearls. It’s an outfit only an urban pixie could pull off – that, or a professional shopper.

Fleischer flits around the loft commenting on colours and styles that would work for me. She says I need splashes of reds, greens, and pinks to liven up my dark attire, and I comply. After all, she’s the former merchandising editor atInStyle and current fashion and beauty editor at Loulou, the new Canadian shopping magazine and one of the event sponsors. “I am the eyes and ears of fashion in Canada,” she says.

Suddenly, her petite features settle into an expression of satisfaction as she spots, across the room, the perfect piece to add glam to my gloomy wardrobe. We hurry over to a shimmering black skirt with pale pink roses. But as Fleischer reaches for it, it disappears. She grabs for it again and gives a little tug, but the skirt slips from her fingertips as someone yanks it from the other side of the rack. Reluctantly, Fleischer lets go, ending the game of tug-of-war. She parts the clothes on the rack to identify her skirt-snatcher, and holding the skirt proudly in her hands is Ceri Marsh, the editor of Fashion magazine. The two fashionistas look at the skirt and then at one another and laugh. But as Marsh walks away toting her prize, Fleischer turns to me and says, “If you weren’t here, I would have fought for that.”

Here at the sample sale, advising me on hues and fabrics, Fleischer is in her element. She is bringing the mandate of the primary shopping magazine in the country to life. Loulou, which, according to its tag, strives to be “your personal shopper,” is one of three Canadian titles – along with Wish and Clin d’OeilShopping – that make up the new shopping magazine category. Inside these books, the main characters are products. Lipsticks, handbags, and cocktail dresses dominate, while articles ring in at about 250 words or so, except forWish, where the editorial content is more substantial. And Canadians love them. Newsstands are selling out of some issues, the competition is pumping out copycats, and editors are drowning in letters of praise from readers who can’t get enough of the service journalism craze.

“We do not see our audience as readers, but as shoppers,” says Cindy Lewis, the vice president and publisher of the U.S. shopping title Shop Etc. “It isn’t about how to lose 10 pounds or how to style your hair – it’s about product as hero. The product is the celebrity.”

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For a glimpse of this future, we can look first to Japan, the birthplace of the shopping magazine. Japanese shopping titles have been thriving for over a decade, and new publications, such as the popular Very andCutie, are born each year. There are currently more than 30 Japanese shopping magazines. The trend made its way to Europe, then North America in 2000, with the launch of Lucky, published by Condé Nast Publications Inc., which is responsible for an array of titles read in Canada, from The New Yorker and Vanity Fair to Wired. In January, the now hugely popular Lucky presented its advertisers with a guaranteed rate base of one million readers.

The success of Lucky started a craze at Condé Nast. In 2004, the company followed up with Cargo, a take on the genre for men, and has started working on a shelter shopping title, Domino, which is slated to appear in April 2005. Condé Nast’s sister division, Fairchild Publications Inc., released Vitals in August 2004. This title’s eight annual issues alternately target male and female readers. That year, Lucky met Shop Etc., its major competitor. The Hearst Magazines product wants to simulate the personal shopper experience as closely as possible, with a Store Directory for a contents page, and a Fashion Calendar that lays out the reader’s shopping schedule at a glance.

Canada’s magazine industry has been experiencing a similar boom. Rogers Media Inc., known for leading national titles such as Maclean’s, Chatelaine, and Canadian Business, took note of the shopping frenzy at Condé Nast and launched Loulou, a Montreal-based publication with editions in French and English.

In Toronto, St. Joseph Media Inc., the company that became a force in the Canadian magazine industry by acquiring Saturday Night and Toronto Life, put together its own service publication. Wish is a hybrid and wants to be four books in one: beauty, fashion, food, and shelter. It’s “Your shopping list for life.” Editor Jane Francisco reluctantly admits the magazine belongs in the shopping category. However, she prefers to call it a lifestyle magazine.

Wish and Loulou have been receiving most of the industry’s attention, but they are not the only shopping titles in Canada. Two new spin-offs have also squeezed themselves onto newsstands. St. Joseph Media launched a second shopping title, Fashion Shops, originally a companion of Fashion magazine. As a promotion, 20,000 copies were bellybanded in the September 2004 issue of Fashion. And let’s not forget nos amis au Québecwho read Clin d’OeilShopping, a spin-off of Quebecor Media’s fashion magazine Clin d’Oeil.

Not everyone is smitten by the shopping magazine craze. Many of the industry elite – editors, columnists, and magazine traditionalists – say shopping magazines are nothing more than glorified catalogues. Dennis Duffy, a freelance journalist and professor emeritus of English at the University of Toronto, chalks this up to the genre’s lack of editorial content. “They’re Trojan horses,” he says of the roughly 160-page, perfect-bound packages. “They only look like magazines on the outside.”

Duffy’s skepticism is common among critics who are uncomfortable with magazines in which products replace ideas. Consider Test Lab, a section in Wish, which offers readers a consumer-report style analysis of the best brands, from mascara to vacuum cleaners. The page consists of full-colour images of items along with positive reviews that border on mini-advertisements for each product.

Sure, lots of magazines review consumer goods. We hardly bat an eye at explore magazine when it publishes a piece on the best running shoes. But in the case of the shopping category, service journalism doesn’t just complement conventional editorial; it replaces it. This, critics say, puts the future of the magazine industry at risk. As the readership of shopping magazines grows, so will the pressure from advertisers at all magazines to blur the line between church and state – as editorial and advertising are respectively called in the business – pushing products from their tidy confinement on ad pages, into the spotlight. Enter the Hannibal Lector effect, as one title dines on the ad dollars of another.

According to Lise Ravary, Loulou‘s publisher, the dining may have started the day Fashion Shops died. The spin-off was pulled from newsstands after only one issue in November 2004, and turned into a section ofFashion magazine. Giorgina Bigioni, the vice president and group publisher of the Style Group at St. Joseph Media, insists the stand-alone version was a trial to test reader response. This is even though it was trumpeted as the “PREMIER ISSUE” on its cover.

Whatever it was meant to be, Fashion Shops is an example of what critics fear – that in order to keep up with the trend, magazines from other genres will soon be shoving shopping sections into their books, edging out longer articles. Advertisers are more likely to jump onboard a magazine that praises products as if they are the answer to readers’ problems. The fear isn’t totally unfounded. Beyond the example of Fashion Shops, the leading U.S. fashion mag, Vogue, has introduced a shopping section called Index. And in the general interest magazine category, Maisonneuve, the young and well-regarded title from Montreal, has introduced a twice-yearly shopping section called Maisonneuve Must-Haves. What’s next, The Walrus Shops?

Paul Benedetti, a print professor from the University of Western Ontario, doesn’t think so. “Somewhere there will always be a New Yorker, a Walrus, a Saturday Night, to keep editorial alive.” But thought-driven magazines need solid readership and ad revenue to keep afloat in a sea of service journalism, and readers cannot automatically assume Benedetti’s heroes will survive the trend and save the day.

In an article for the Columbia Journalism Review, Michael Shapiro asserted, “It is not enough, just as it is not enough to accept that just because The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are terrific newspapers all is well in American newspapers.” In Canada, where the revenue pool is much smaller, magazines owned by the same company become rivals for the same advertising dollars. If one title eliminates another, the industry, in general, will have trouble thriving. Will Loulou‘s runaway success gobble up Flare‘s advertisers and run it into the ground?

Ravary, also the publisher and editor of Quebec-based Châtelaine, is confident the trend won’t end in cannibalism, but she understands where critics are coming from. “We realize our credibility is thin,” she says. “It’s very easy for someone to think what we do is product placement.” She insists it’s not and that the division between church and state is strictly enforced. Francisco says it’s the same at Wish. Both magazines claim to rely on extensive research and product testing, not the advertisers, when choosing which items to feature. They say that editorial is not influenced by the amount of ad space a company buys, but they do accept junkets.

Even if shopping magazines aren’t paid off to mention products, they are still, first and foremost, vehicles for advertising. Bill Shields, the editor of Masthead, says the shopping category delivers motivated consumers to advertisers on a silver platter. They are speaking to their readers at a critical moment in the shopping cycle – these are urban 18- to 35-year-old fashion-conscious women. They have disposable incomes, their hands are on their purses, and they are ready to buy. Shields says the problem heightened during the advertising recession that began in April 2001. Sales were hard to come by, and desperate publishers handed advertisers more control. Ads weren’t meant just to sell products; they were designed to build a brand. “Increasingly, advertisers wanted to become more involved with the editorial process,” he says. “The world, and advertisers, had become more demanding.”

It wasn’t until the end of 2003 that the industry pulled itself out of the recession, but the damage was done. Now, approximately two years later, the marketplace looks quite different. “Magazines used to tell you things, not sell you things,” says Myrna Blyth, the author of Spin Sisters and the former editor of Ladies’ Home Journal. She agrees that there is increased pressure across the board for magazines to satisfy the advertiser, even if it’s at the expense of neutrality. Shopping magazines, Blyth explains, aren’t journalism; they’re marketing. They speak to the masses by connecting them with material goods. As Blyth puts it, “Everyone likes cute shoes.”

At the heart of the debate remains the question of whether the content in shopping magazines is journalism. Some, like Blyth and Duffy, say no. Simon Dumenco would agree. The New York journalist wrote in the September issue of Folio, “Today’s magazine industry innovators are those who realize that they’re not really magazine people. They’re merchants, or cult leaders, or service serializers, or TV people who are cleverly and subversively using the magazine format to work un-magazine-like agendas.”

Those standing on the other side of the fence argue that shopping magazines do, in fact, engage in “reporting” by going out and finding the best products for the reader. It’s a process Bigioni says is a demanding type of journalism. “Shopping content is a lot more difficult to create than story content in a non-shopping magazine,” she claims, arguing that the research involved in testing and reporting on products is a more extensive process than the writer of a three-page article would engage in.

As debatable as that point might be, one thing’s for certain: service journalism is becoming increasingly valuable. “It offers neatly packaged, how-to information that is useful to readers who are increasingly time-pressed,” notes Shields. “It solves a problem, serves a need, answers a question, and, therefore, is of immediate benefit.”

It’s hard to argue with that, except that when flipping through available shopping magazines, you won’t find anyone bad-mouthing a single product. The obvious question arises – how much service do shopping magazines actually provide? Bigioni, Francisco, and Fleischer all say it’s pointless to bash a product. By excluding the duds, they have the reader’s best interest in mind, not the advertiser’s. “We’re journalists,” Fleischer says. “We have to be truthful.”

Truthful, that is, about products that are worth recommending. As for products found wanting, it’s a case of don’t ask and don’t tell. Fleischer says, “Loulou is a smile magazine. It’s happy and uplifting. You won’t find depressing articles in it.” No one said anything about being depressing, just balanced. Service journalism that claims to be saving modern women time and money should also warn them against expensive cellulite creams that don’t work, or poorly made coats that won’t last through the winter.

Perhaps the biggest argument in defence of the shopping category is that it’s not pretending to be something it isn’t – serious, intellectual, and thought-provoking. Rather, it celebrates the superficial. “Fashion, shopping, and makeup are nothing people should be upset about,” says Esme Rottschafer, the media manager of international advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi. “It’s not like they’re taking over the world.” Fair enough, but Loulou is Rogers’s largest paid-circulation launch in more than two decades.

John Macfarlane, editor of Toronto Life and vice president of strategic development at St. Joseph Media, thinks people’s lives are hectic and they’re looking for ways to make them easier. Shopping magazines tantalize with the lure of instant practical solutions.

According to Ravary, they offer something the fashion category never has. “Fashion magazines are selling a dream,” she says, referring to expensive clothes for tiny bodies that don’t look much like readers’. “Shopping magazines are a redemption. Readers are saying, ‘Finally, a fashion magazine I can relate to.’ It’s close to them. It’s real.”

Maybe that’s what critics are most afraid of – that a large proportion of the magazine-buying public wants (and perhaps even needs) packaged solutions for their individual woes. Maybe 160,000 readers of Loulou can’t be wrong.

If the traditional hallowed ground of magazine journalism – the narrative – is losing the battle for preeminence in the reader’s mind to time-saving consumer advice, it’s possible that what constitutes a good magazine today isn’t what it used to be. And maybe that will be the ultimate service challenge for Ravary, who says, “May the best magazine win.”