Why print circulars aren’t dead yet

Fewer advertising flyers are tumbling out of Sunday newspapers, but some retailers are sticking with them.
article cover

NoDerog/Getty Images

· 4 min read

Let us harken back to a time long, long ago, when “apps” referred only to the mozzarella sticks and potato skins the server brought before the entrée, and the only way you were being tracked was if you were wearing an ankle monitor. In those halcyon days, an essential way that retailers piqued shoppers’ interest in upcoming sales was the weekly advertising circular they inserted into the local newspaper.

Recently, though, print circulars have taken their lumps:

  • Walgreens began to phase out its print circular in 2020 and reportedly transitioned to a digital-only version of its weekly ad circular a year later.
  • Target followed by going to a digital-only circular in 2021, as did CVS in 2022.

But don’t write the obituary yet. The weekly circular, like the paperback novel and the vinyl album—quaint artifacts to some, irreplaceable to others—has its fans among retailers and consumers. The future may be digital, they say, but print still has its place.

Old money: Edgar Dworsky, a longtime consumer advocate, lawyer, and publisher of Consumer World, worries that when print circulars disappear, it’s older consumers who take it on the chin.

“Not everyone has internet access to be able to review circulars” when they are online-only, Dworsky told us. “Without the tools, the senior who might [have] lower income potentially, or diminished income compared to their working life, might be interested in finding out what’s on sale and saving some money. And to the extent they’re not able to, I think that’s a detriment for them.”

  • Only 61% of Americans over 65 own a smartphone, compared to 96% of those 18–29 and 95% of those 30–49, according to 2021 data from the Pew Research Center.
  • Nearly all Americans ages 18–29 (99%) say they use the internet, but one in four (25%) of those over 65 are not internet users, Pew found.

Virtually the same. Perhaps as a nod to the less computer-savvy, online versions of flyers tend to be reproductions of the print versions (unlike newspapers, whose online versions tend to have dramatically different layouts).

  • Flipp, a technology platform and app, features circulars from sectors including grocery, fashion, pharmacy, and electronics.
  • Through customization and curation, Flipp claims it helps increase basket-size trips, which it says average $75.20 for those who don’t read circulars, $80.40 for print-circular readers, and $83.60 for digital-circular readers.
Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.

Dworsky, a Flipp user, said the user experience can be inconsistent, emailing us links for his local Walgreens flyer, which on a computer has very small text that he wrote in the email was a “tiny mess,” and also his local Target flyer, which is much more readable.

“If you can’t do a physical circular because you decided economically as a company the printing cost and distribution costs have just gotten out of hand, at least do a virtual version that simulates the look of a traditional circular,” Dworsky said.

Coming full circular: Perry Kramer, a managing partner at Retail Consulting Partners, said grocery is one sector that has been more reluctant to phase out weekly circulars. Many are taking the intermediary step, he said, of no longer paying the advertising cost of having them inserted in newspapers, but still having a stack of them in stores.

“I worked with a couple of smaller chains in the southeast, and they let their customers know, ‘Hey, we’re not going to put it in the paper anymore, but it will be available every Tuesday morning brand new at the door,’” Kramer told us.

Kramer thinks those printed circulars help purchases.

“It’s a driver, for sure,” he said. “Is it 10% of the business? No, but you know in grocery, we’ve only got a 1% or 2% margin. You can’t afford to lose much.”

In April 2020, Loblaw, the parent company of the No Frills supermarket in Canada, announced it was discontinuing printed flyers. But in the months that followed, No Frills reportedly had a 2% drop in share of visit, a calculation for how many times shoppers visit stores in comparison to the rest of the marketplace.

Around October of that year, No Frills reversed the decision and started printing flyers again.

“Print is still very relevant for a lot of consumers,” Kramer said.

But how long will the print circular survive?

“I don’t see it being totally replaced in the next five to 10 years,” Kramer said. “I think you’re at least another half generation away.”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.