Independents put more work into dealing with partworks than the multiples do, so why do they get worse terms?

The disclosure by RN earlier this year that Tesco was receiving a higher profit margin on partworks than the 22.5% standard came as no surprise to me.

More than 20 years ago, I was standing beside the then managing director of WH Smith Wholesale when he smilingly and totally unconvincingly told the NFRN national president that the claim that multiples were receiving better terms than independents was “nonsense”. From that moment, I’ve never had any doubts.

rn-house-ad1If it had been revealed that supermarkets were receiving higher margins on, say, Glamour or Ideal Home, I doubt there would have been a public protest, let alone an NFRN conference motion calling for terms parity with the multiples.

But partworks are a different matter. Supermarkets do not usually handle them after the first few issues, so they do not have to put up with the hassle that nearly always seems to follow.

It starts with supply allocations during the settle-down sale period. Demand for early issues of partworks are bound to be volatile, so estimates of the number of copies individual retailers need for the next issues lead inevitably to shortages in some shops and overstocks in others. Why not let wholesalers do a proper job?

Then there are the publishers’ direct-to-consumer offers, undercutting their retailers and causing readers to switch from shop purchase to subscription. Rather than alienate the trade in this way, why don’t publishers remove all subscription offers from newstrade copies after, say, part four?

Retailers also have to cope with the industry’s failure to pack partworks in a way that minimises the possibility of transit damage. Oversize issues that won’t fit in totes, along with model-building and collectables titles, are particularly vulnerable. Partworks priced at up to £7.99 deserve careful handling and packaging that’s fit for purpose.

More problems start when copies arrive damaged and there’s no replacement stock at the wholesaler. It can take weeks, sometimes months, for retailers to obtain back issues, causing great frustration to their customers, who cannot understand why it takes their newsagents so long to get hold of an edition of a current partwork when Amazon can deliver an obscure book within two or three days. Why can’t the publishers make sure the wholesalers’ back-issues banks work?

Partworks can present other problems, too, but there are surely enough grounds above to question why retailers should be expected to handle these titles for a lower discount than they receive for sales of popular magazines.

Never mind terms parity with the multiples – couldn’t a much stronger case be put to them for terms parity with magazines as the starting point, with some extra margin for copies supplied on firm sale?

Partwork publishers have got away with shoddy treatment of retailers, particularly independents, for far too long. It’s time they upped their game – and their terms.