A number of small rural and suburban stores are to lose personal visits from Imperial Tobacco sales force representatives, Convenience Store has learned.

They are to be replaced by a new telephone service, a letter sent out to a “select list” of small convenience retailers and newsagents states.

These stores, which Imperial admits, had not had “the levels of contact and support” that it would have liked to offer, will now receive a phone call every six weeks in place of a reps’ visit.

Despite being based in Bristol, the telephone agents would have local knowledge, and be able to update retailers on latest news, Imperial said.

The tobacco giant, which last month posted a 7% decline in combined cigarette and fine cut tobacco volumes in the nine months to June 2013, said it had “spent considerable time” talking to retailers about how best to serve them in the “changing and challenging environment” and was “confident” that the new service would “improve the level of support” that some currently received.

However, not all retailers are convinced. Despite only receiving a personal visit from his Imperial Tobacco sales rep three or four times a year, Shetland Islands based retailer Scott Preston said he would still prefer a face to face meeting as opposed to a phone call.

“I guess given the coming legislative changes, the fact that tobacco sales are declining, plus the competition from the growing electronic cigarettes market means that like all of us, they are having to cut costs. It’s a great shame though as tobacco was one of the few areas that did still send reps out to us and we looked forward to their visits,” Scott said.

With the implementation of a display ban from 2015, and a question mark still hanging over plain packaging in England and Wales, other retailers said they were afraid of how the loss might affect them.

Lionel Cashin who owns the News Shop in Market Weighton, Yorkshire, which turns over more than £120,000 of tobacco sales a year, said the move came at the wrong time.

“For it to be coming from the market leader at such a critical time for the tobacco industry is sending out totally the wrong signal,” he said. “When dealing with such a high value and heavily regulated product as tobacco, personal visits from sales representatives are crucial.

“We need the support now more than ever, not just for their expert category management advice and legislative updates but also to help us deal with costly damages. I think this could also be an issue for counterfeit tobacco as up until now, reps’ monitoring of gantries has been a key deterrent for unscrupulous retailers,” he said.

Gill Fairweather of Fairweather News in Teignmouth, who received the letter last week, also said the news was disheartening.  “I’m really saddened by this as we have always had an excellent sales representative from Imperial Tobacco. We need to see someone in person to help us compete, a phone call just won’t cut it as you can’t build the same relationships as you can face to face. But more importantly, how can someone possibly help us face up our gantry or show us new products over the phone?,” she asked. “Our rep was always brilliant at that, and at sorting out any damages.”

According to hot-off-the-press findings from HIM’s Sales Force Optimisation 2013 survey, sales reps were considered to be the most likely communication tool to grow in influence in the coming 12 months.