newstrade column
Neville Rhodes

The agenda for the recent NFRN annual conference included several motions about the newstrade that will have been familiar to many of the delegates, but which had been put down for debate because the problems they highlighted remain unresolved.

Late newspapers are the eternal sore point for news retailers, particularly for HND agents, who called for their deliveries to be prioritised. Before the debate, Simon Gage, Smith News commercial director, had told the conference HND was “a key focus” of his company’s business. I don’t doubt it, because HND is critical to the wholesaler’s survival.

National newspapers also value HND. Their promotion of the service during last year’s lockdowns was huge, with big advertisements for home delivery in their pages every day, resulting in around 250,000 new orders – and their support continues with the DeliverMyNewspaper campaign.

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Like the wholesalers, the newspaper publishers need HND to counter the downward drift of casual sales, because while they are gung-ho for digital growth, print is still the biggest revenue generator for most of them.

But the good intentions of the publishers and wholesalers have come up against the economic reality that newstrade revenues have been declining steadily for at least the past decade, and show few signs of stabilising.

This has necessitated severe cost-cutting at all levels: consolidation of printing and trunking contracts, causing several titles to arrive at wholesale together; closure of wholesale branches, creating greater physical distance between retailers and their depot; and, in some areas, the merging of delivery routes to increase the average number of shops supplied per vehicle.

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All of these factors put HND at risk, and make prioritising it impossible.

A motion about the allocation of magazines when the wholesaler is short-supplied by the publisher/ distributor called for the supermarkets not to be given preferential treatment at the expense of reduced orders for independent retailers. It received near-unanimous support, but has no chance of being implemented.

In my days as a newsagent, WHSmith and John Menzies were too big to bully, and they tried, reasonably successfully, to distribute supplies fairly.

Today, the power lies with the supermarkets, whose combined share of the magazine market – following the damage inflicted by lockdowns on WHSmith’s high street and travel-point sales – is reported to have reached 50%.

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They impose their own rules on the magazine industry, with listing fees, fines for non-compliance, third-party management of returns and are now moving to ‘pay on scan’ – and nobody dares to say boo to them. When supplies are short, they’ll get the copies they want, but small shops with customer orders may not.

The irony of these shortages is, as the high levels of unsolds demonstrate, there are nearly always enough copies to go round – they are just not in the right places.

When I see the reduced space for magazines in shops, including most supermarkets, I ask myself where, when and how did it all go wrong?

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