Are we really in a meltdown?

Independent convenience retail

It is right that retailers speak out about the state of the newstrade distribution system and get it into the headlines, but the industry needs to work together, and that means wholesalers should get tough on publishers and make them rethink the ways in which they work.

When Yorkshire newsagent James Wilkinson told the NFRN national council earlier this year that “parts of the distribution system are in meltdown”, my initial reaction was that his comment was a bit over the top.

The papers are still being delivered, even though on a bad day they can be an hour or more late in some parts of the country.

Thanks to the dedication of newsagents and their deliverers, most HND rounds still go out, even when the papers are extremely late. And the majority of newspaper customers can still find the title they want when they call at their shop.

So the system is not on the verge of breakdown, but it is out of control, and in this respect Mr Wilkinson is right. What’s more, he’s right to speak out about it in a way that makes headlines.

The distribution system is not being properly controlled by the newspaper publishers, who despite investing huge amounts of political capital to keep their territorial monopolies for reasons of “distribution efficiency”, allow their own members to disrupt that efficiency by flouting their scheduled arrival times, frequently causing all titles to go out late from the wholesalers.

Nor are the wholesalers controlling the system, even though they are the most profitable part of it and their monopolies have never been more secure, tied up with long-term contracts and no competitors in sight, at least for the distribution of newspapers.

But instead of taking control the wholesalers are allowing a highly unsatisfactory situation over delivery times to drift on year after year, leaving it to their retailer customers to take the strain.

What the wholesalers should be doing is getting tough with the publishers. They should tell them that although an occasional missed schedule is understandable, because of a press breakdown, bad weather, or a traffic hold-up, persistent lateness is unacceptable. Supermarkets fine their suppliers who fail to stick to commitments, and the news wholesalers should adopt a similar approach – using some of the proceeds to reduce carriage charges.

The wholesalers should also insist that cut-off times allow them enough time to meet all their retailers’ RDTs. Having to hold vans back to a point that makes it impossible to deliver to some shops on time makes a nonsense of the service, and the wholesalers shouldn’t stand for it.

I would go further and question the very idea of cut-off times. They are the publishers’ ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ cards.  Why bother to meet a schedule when you know there is another deadline later on that still keeps you out of trouble?

If the industry must have cut-off times, they should be the latest time the wholesaler’s vans need to start moving out: not the latest time for the arrival of a trunker carrying supplies.

The industry also needs to stop fooling itself with the National Distribution Monitor’s phoney statistics. Does anybody believe that during the four weeks to 23 February, 95.7%, on average, of deliveries to shops were on time – and that the so-called ‘weighted compliance’ figure was even better? Tell that one to the customers and delivery staff hanging around on cold mornings waiting for the papers to arrive.

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