The three identical Chevrolet Matiz in the blue and yellow livery of local retailer Pipers News Stores emerge from behind the shop and peel off to deliver some of the 2,700 newspapers which Pipers distributes every day from its two Sussex locations, all without a paperboy or bicycle in sight.
Having been in news delivery for over 60 years, company founder Nigel Piper and his family have built a business empire which until recently included T Cox & Son, the independent newstrade wholesaler for a large part of East Sussex and West Kent, as well as two shops and a home delivery service.
But after bowing to the inevitable and handing over the wholesaling arm to Dawsons News, the company has put its unrivalled knowledge of the sector to use in regenerating the stores and creating a news delivery model that can thrive in the difficult trading conditions expected during the next few years.
With six of its own vehicles and a further 45 drivers using their own cars, Pipers has seen a 42% increase in its news deliveries in the past 12 months, at a time when other retailers have abandoned HND as uneconomical.
Senior retail manager Michael Hunt explains how it works. “We have 15 rounds going out every day from Hailsham and another 12 from our other store in Heathfield. That’s about 100 newspapers and magazines per driver. The average round can cover an area of 20 miles, although some of the more rural runs can be up to 50.”
The aim, Hunt says, is to complete rounds by 7am, with drivers given 30 minutes to assemble their orders and 90 minutes for deliveries.
Watching the team in action you see how slick the operation is, despite the complications of changes to orders, cancellations, supplements and inserts. “I really don’t see how retailers can do this with paperboys any more,” says Hunt. “Just the weight of the papers these days means they must be running backwards and forwards to the shop – that can’t be economical – and you can see why kids are unwilling to do it.
“We’ve found that people are prepared to pay for a good delivery service, particularly if they’re out in the sticks. We charge an average of £2.14 a week – that’s for seven days of deliveries – with a top rate of £3.50 for the most remote areas.”
The method of payment has also been brought up to date. Pipers has encouraged customers to take out direct debits, which not only keeps the book debt down but saves a lot of time chasing late payments. Half of the customers now pay this way; others use the phone or a website, where they can also register their order changes and cancellations.
Even so, Hunt says, the delivery service is currently geared to do little more than break even – the upside is in the margin on newspapers and magazine sales. But if you have cars visiting far-flung villages, there’s potential to add other products and that’s the exciting challenge for the Pipers’ team in the year ahead.
“We plan to keep on expanding, but it’s something you can’t do quickly,” says Hunt. “We’ve built an infrastructure which works, but you have to have the resources – labour, vehicles and space to make up orders – to offer a good reliable service for which you can charge appropriately.”
The biggest threat to that reliability, he says, comes from the publishers. “Most of our drivers have full-time day jobs so delays in deliveries to us are a problem; The Telegraph’s been a nightmare recently. We need the publishers to understand how much their lateness affects businesses like ours – they are the biggest threat to our expansion plans.”
Unlike many retailers, Hunt is happy with the performance of his wholesaler, Dawsons. “There were teething problems at first, but I think they understand our needs now,” he smiles. “I can’t complain about our allocation. We tell them what we want and we generally get it.” Does being one of the depot’s bigger customers help? “Maybe. Certainly having the volume to have a dedicated van coming just to us every day speeds up the process.”
The other key to expansion is constant canvassing and acquisition. Pipers delivers tailored leaflets with a four-week free-delivery offer; the conversion rate of those who take it up is very high, Hunt says. “If I see a paperboy on the street at 8.30am I’ll add that area to our list of targets, because I don’t consider what’s being offered to be a competitive service to ours.”
Picking up rounds from retailers who throw in the towel is another priority, with several acquisitions in the past 18 months. “We’ll keep the previous retailer’s delivery charge for a month, but some of them, like 80p a week, just aren’t based in reality. After a few weeks we explain why the price has to go up.
“News delivery has been undervalued, I think. A lot of people still want a newspaper before they leave the house in the morning. We’re confident that we’re offering a service that people will see the value in, and we’ve demonstrated that they will be prepared to pay for it.”