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When stores all around him chose the convenience path, Preston retailer Carl Pickering stuck to his CTN roots. Now, with an NFRN award under his belt for his newspaper sales, he knows he made the right decision. Tim Murray reports
When Carl Pickering took a job delivering newspapers for his local newsagent, Top Shop News in Preston, at the tender age of 12, little did he realise that one day he’d end up running the store, or that some 42 years down the line, he’d win plaudits for his village shop.
What’s more, Mr Pickering’s success – he recently picked up the Newspaper Retailer of the Year title at the NFRN awards – has been based on newspapers and magazines rather than any diversification.
As the 54-year-old explains: “We’re a very traditional newsagents, specialising in magazines and newspapers, and we do weighout sweets as well. We have a few groceries, but it’s more the basic things.”
He acknowledges that Top Shop News’s location does help with its newspapers and magazine business, noting: “I’m lucky with where I’m based. It might not work for everyone in every area, but for me it is viable.”
The job Mr Pickering began at the shop at a mere 12 years old, delivering newspapers, continued throughout his teenage years. Having worked in other locations, but wanting to strike out on his own, he bought it from its then owners under the Forbuoys banner.
“It had been in their hands for a number of years. I knew it had the potential to do better,” he says of his acquisition of the store more than 20 years ago. He adds: “There’s quite a lot of convenience stores around us. In fact, we’re pretty much overwhelmed with them.”
Eschewing that route, Top Shop News decided instead to concentrate on other areas. “We specialise in HND, none of the other stores near us did that. We saw that could be a nice niche for us. It’s a good fit for our business.”
If anything, Mr Pickering was helped by the decisions of other nearby newsagents to follow the c-store model. He says: “People in our village really like having a proper newsagent.”
This means his reach now extends beyond Hesketh Bank into other villages. He has 18 staff, while both he and his wife also go out on a round themselves, theirs covering more remote areas.
New business and deliveries mainly come via word of mouth. “There was a bit of a drop about five years ago, when money was really tight, but it picked up a few years on from that and it’s now a steady business,” says Carl. “It’s solid and provides a regular income and guaranteed sales.”
Shopper recommendations have also helped pull in new customers to his thriving magazine business. There are some 600 titles on offer, taking in all areas, with a particular eye on what does well in this part of Lancashire – with agricultural magazines being chief among them.
With a wealth of convenience competition around him, Carl adds he has also worked hard to build up the identity of the store and bring in new customers.
We specialise in HND, none of the other stores near us did that. We saw that could be a nice niche for us. It’s a good fit for our business
This attention to detail goes right down to the minutiae – bespoke labels and lids on a number of weighout sweets bear the store’s name and the same blue colour scheme of its fascia.
“We never wanted to go down the symbol group route,” he says. “The carrier bags have our own logo on them, all our signs use the same typeface, we’ve created our own little brand.”
It is this dedication that has helped him pick up the NFRN award, but he’s not letting the grass grow under his feet and is planning the next development.
“We had a refit about five years ago,” he concludes, “and the only thing I thought we could improve was the counter.
“Instead of a tobacco gantry with the door on – a prime location that will be wasted space – we’re getting some units there, with illuminated shelving and we’re going to have boxes of chocolates and other products, with pick and mix at the front. It’s all bespoke. It’s about keeping it fresh.”
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