One of the main attractions of being an independent retailer is that you are free to make your own business decisions and play your hunches, for good or bad.

That's the theory, anyway. In reality, there are a worrying number of areas of operation where retailers have neither choice nor control.

Business rates is one such area. Many store owners are currently facing huge increases in overheads because their rates are linked to increases in property prices, based on a valuation taken at an arbitrary moment in the past. Yes, there's a right of appeal, but not a choice of local authority to appeal to, so there is only limited prospect of success. You can change almost everything about your store, but you can't change where it is.

The news trade is another example of how retailers are often the victims of geography. News should be a dream to handle it's a popular (if declining) product that is fresh every day; it encourages shoppers to visit the store regularly; and, for many, it's available on sale-or-return terms. Yet most of the time it is a nightmare to handle and, if you have a problem with your supply or think your delivery charge is too high, there is no alternative source of supply to the monopoly wholesaler in your area.

Retailers are rightly up in arms over the margin reduction recently announced for The Sun. When it comes to Mars bars and cans of Coke, you have a choice of how much to charge, who you buy from and how it arrives at your store. With newspapers there is a margin dictated by the publisher, a delivery charge dictated by the distributor, and a cover price printed in large type on the cover and often in the brand's advertising.

From the retailer's point of view, that's not freedom of choice. In fact, it's not freedom at all.

Cheers for sales assistants

It was a joy to be part of the judging panel for this year's Sales Assistant of the Year Awards.

The dedication, commitment and passion for the job shown by the winners was heartening, both on an emotional level and because it demonstrated so clearly that ours is an industry that treats its staff and customers like real people, not just numbers.

My congratulations go the five category winners and our overall champion Annette Harrison, but I'd also like to pass my thanks to everyone who entered. It was hugely enjoyable to read your stories and I hope that the process of entering helped to build personal confidence, strengthen the bonds between management and staff, and create a more positive atmosphere in the stores concerned. Our industry certainly looks in safe hands.

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