What the Hell is the New York Times Doing Selling Subscriptions Inside the ‘Wal-Mart of New York City?’

by Dan Oshinsky on December 12, 2011

I was in New York City last week, and I went shopping with a friend. Or, more accurately: She went shopping, and I came along to try on funny hats and annoy her.

Nevertheless: She took us to a store north of Columbus Circle. I’d never heard of the store before. It was called Century 21, which is apparently unrelated to the real estate seller of the same name. My friend referred to the store as the Wal-Mart of Manhattan.

But what made an impression on me wasn’t the store itself — though it did seem like a Wal-Mart that was trying extra hard to dress up appropriately for the city — but this display in the front of the store. It was a table near the entrance, and there was a rep from the New York Times sitting there, selling subscriptions to the paper. Buy a subscription, get a $50 gift card to shop at Century 21.

And this just started to bother the hell out of me.

So I’m writing this post now because I’d like some answers. I’m confused as to how the New York Times — the newspaper of record for the freaking universe — could end up in a business relationship with a store that sells designer gloves at 50% off retail. Such a partnership seems to violate even the most basic rules of branding.

Because if I’m in charge of the New York Times brand, I’m asking these questions before I enter into any business relationship:

-How does this extend the New York Times’ brand?
-Is this a positive extension of the Times’ brand?
-Is the Times reaching new clientele with this partnership? Could this clientele be reached otherwise?
-Does this make the New York Times money?
-Does it do enough of both — reach new clientele and make money — to justify the partnership?

In my estimation, I’m not sure what such a partnership with Century 21 does for the Times. There are an endless number of points where you can interact with the Times’ brand: In print, online, through advertising, through social media. If you pop into an Apple Store to test drive an iPad, and you see a New York Times app on the device, that’s an interaction with the brand. (And for the record, that’s a damn good interaction. Gold stars to the Times rep who pulled that one off.)

So I’m confused as to why the Times would want a “Please buy our product and we’ll give you a few bucks off shoes!” brand interaction at Century 21. If anything, it seems to cheapen the Times’ brand. It seems to scream, “We’ll sell papers anywhere they’ll let us. Even here!”

Here’s what the Times itself wrote about the store in an article just two months ago:

“Civilized it’s not.”

“The dramatic markdowns and bazaarlike atmosphere (nothing’s chained for security, yet) can encourage foolish fashion risks.”

“I descended to hell, a k a the fluorescent-lighted basement footwear department…”

“What the branch lacks in ambience (brace for cheap carpets, garish cylindrical light fixtures and droning soft rock)…”

You get the idea. Why’s the Times decided to associate itself with that?

To go question by question through the bullets I’ve listed above:

-How does this extend the New York Times’ brand? It gives the Times a direct presence in seven large department stores in and around the city.

-Is this a positive extension of the Times’ brand? Unlikely. Here’s how I’ve always determined a newspaper’s true audience: See who they’re writing about in the vows and the obituary sections. Those are the types of people they’re really writing for. I’m not sure that I see the Times’ vows/obit audience having much crossover with Century 21′s core of shoppers, most of whom seemed to be foreigners and out-of-towners. (The locals were all bargain hunters, and I’ll get to them in a second.)

-Is the Times reaching new clientele with this partnership? Could this clientele be reached otherwise? Maybe. There might be a non-New York crowd at Century 21 that might want to subscribe to the paper, I think. But it’s also worth asking: Are the kinds of people shopping for deep discounts the same people with disposable income to spend on a yearly subscription to a print newspaper?

And I do think much of this audience could be reached otherwise. Might some of this audience — especially the foreign shoppers — be more interested in a subscription to the Times online as opposed to a print subscription?

I’m told the Times also has a similar presence at the city’s many street fairs, but that’s a different story. In that case, the Times is also associating itself with a brand, but the brand is New York City itself. The Times wants to be the paper of record for the city. Nothing wrong with being visible within city limits, and I’d guess that the street fair audience isn’t all that different from the Century 21 audience. (In fact, it might be more domestic, and weed out the international shoppers who can’t buy a print subscription anyway.)

-Does this make the New York Times money? This is the big question, and I don’t have an answer to it. In most arrangements like this, it’s the Times that would be paying to get a spot inside the store. (It is also possible, though less likely, that it’s Century 21 that’s paying the Times, and Century 21 is hoping that the halo of “elite” status that the Times exudes will help increase sales of, I dunno, handbags.) I’d guess that the Times offers up a percentage of in-store subscription sales to Century 21, on top of a fixed payment to get into the store in the first place.

-Does it do enough of both — reach new clientele and make money — to justify the partnership? I just cannot imagine a situation in which it does much for the Times’ brand or bottom line. Who okayed this partnership? The whole thing confuses me, really.

Of course, I’d love to get a real answer on this from someone at either the Times or Century 21. Because the way I’m seeing it, this is the kind of partnership that reeks of desperation. This looks like a brand that’s going to any length just to make a sale — even if in the course making the sale, they’re actually hurting the overall reputation of the Times’ brand.

I just don’t understand it.

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