Andy and Lynn Thurston, who run Gemco News at Braintree in Essex, have had it up to here with news distributor John Menzies. The couple were previously serviced by Smiths News and thought the service good, but the territory shake-up has left much frustration in its wake.

Since they have 1,800 home delivered customers over and above the shop sales, they are pretty big newsagents Andy reckons that they were the biggest independent customer in the region when they were serviced via Chelmsford. Now the management from Chelmsford has been transferred to Maidstone, leaving Chelmsford as just a distribution spur. After 6am he can't talk to Maidstone, but is meant to go via Sheffield. Well, you are beginning to get the confused picture.

Andy and Lynn are supposed to work within 2-4% as far as returns are concerned. Andy says this is perfectly reasonable and do-able but they simply cannot get the supplies they need. If they sell 30 papers with no returns at all, why is the next order arbitrarily reduced to 28?

Why are holidays and long weekends not taken into account?

Andy has put a lot of time and effort into this problem. He has spoken to head office in Edinburgh, to Maidstone, to the newspaper publishers themselves. No matter how often he has been told it would be fixed, it doesn't remain fixed. He has been told that it all comes down to the 'Allocations Department'.

"The newspapers themselves have put a constraint on any change in my figures," he says, "head office has put a constraint and so has Maidstone. But Allocations are not answerable to anybody."

I tried to chase this up on their behalf, but the Edinburgh head office gave me another number for someone in distribution who said I really should be talking to the complaints department in Sheffield. When I spoke to the lady there she looked up the Thurstons' file and said there had been no complaints. She gave me an 0845 number for Andy to ring.

Andy was beside himself. He had that number on speed dial. He had given up on Sheffield ages ago. But what about the 40-odd emails between himself and the deputy manager at Maidstone?

Strikes me that there isn't much joined-up thinking, or acting. All the couple want to do is sell more product.

Andy and Lynn have a theory. They believe that the independent is being controlled in a very unhelpful way with their rations governed by some sort of computer allocations system. Andy says the supermarkets can have as many copies as they like and, more crucially, as many returns as they like without being penalised.

He says he even has proof. Lynn picked up a trolley in Sainsbury's which had a delivery note lurking about in it, plus the returns for the previous three days. "The figures were phenomenal," says Andy. "I'm seriously thinking about going to the Competition Commission. It's discriminatory practice."

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