Newspapers spread out on boards across an open chest freezer, Nick Clifton is already half-way through the morning's bundles when Convenience Store staggers through the door of his Spar store in Chesterton Road, Cambridge, at the distinctly journalist-unfriendly hour of 5.30am.
Nick and his business partner John Dakin have owned the store for six years and in that time have built up a news offering that is the envy of the trade. With just three metres of wall space dedicated to magazines, and a single gondola end for newspapers, the category somehow contributes 10% of turnover and is growing at 21% year on year, against overall growth across the store of 11%. The store is now likely to be adopted as a model for the entire Spar estate to demonstrate how to be successful in news.
The store is on a main route between a residential area and the city centre, but it's not passing trade that drives the category, it's home delivery. "When we started nothing was delivered from here," says Nick. "Now we have several rounds across a wide area, most of which go out from here, although one is collected and another is delivered by car to the paperboy."
That's the wrong word, though, because only one of the delivery team could be described as a boy - the rest are adults, ranging from 30 to retirement age. "Adults are much more reliable," says Nick. "They will turn up even with a streaming cold, while kids will let you down if they don't feel like getting out of bed. We've got one semi-retired lady who does the old people's homes around here and loves it. Adults can start earlier, too; some of ours are finished by 6.45am. We pay them a bit more than we would kids but it's worth it for the reliability. If you can recruit pensioners or semi-retired people I'd say that's the way to go." Nick adds that he pays staff £6-£7 a day and charges customers £1.50 a week for news delivery. "It's not enough to make any money, but it covers the cost, and I think to go above that would price us out of the market," he says. "People would just give up on HND."
However, he reveals that his margin on newstrade is still about 20% after allowing for the cost of distribution.
Preparing the morning's deliveries and displays is a two-person, two-hour job, except for "nightmare" Saturdays when up to 30 bundles can keep Nick engaged until 8am. The one thing that messes up the process more than any other is late arrivals from the wholesaler. Nick says: "If the rounds are delayed we get into difficulty - our delivery team has other commitments. I recently had to deliver all The Times myself because the paper was late. And when the customers start to come in we need to be moving on to other jobs."
Standing beside Nick, diving energetically into the tote boxes, is perhaps the main reason that the category is so successful. Helen McDaid lives for news and mags. It's her primary responsibility in the store and one which she takes on with determination and intense attention to detail.
As Helen stocks the fixture she explains how being the dedicated member of staff for the category allows her to build up a picture of what's selling. Her magazine shelves are scrupulously neat. "I get itchy when I go into Tesco," she says. "I have to stop myself tidying their magazines up." She admits she finds covermounts and giveaways a challenge because they mess up the symmetry of her display.
Going to plan
The mags all get full-facings, but in some non-standard layouts. TV listings are bottom left, because they will sell wherever they are placed; best-sellers Grazia, Closer, Star and Reveal go above them; and more niche titles, chosen to suit the tastes of local residents, are in the middle of the display. Men's titles are on the top shelf but there's little adult stock.
Helen uses Hot Spot holders, and there are seven of them, to promote "anything I'm trying to get rid of - everything that goes in them sells." She's also careful to keep titles in the same spot, as she's seen how sales can plummet if customers can't find their favourites immediately.
As well as Horse & Hound and shooting and fishing titles, Helen finds room for several local magazines. Spar stores are required to stock a core range, but beyond that there's an optional list and with someone like Helen to oversee the category there's plenty of scope to tailor the offering to the community. It's something the majors can't match. "Tesco really only wants to sell Radio Times, Bella and Best," says Nick. "There's space for us to look beyond the obvious."
For example, when a nearby One-Stop was rebranded to Tesco Express, it reduced its newstrade space and the Spar has been only too happy to pick up the slack.
Unlike many retailers, Helen doesn't have a bad word to say about her news wholesalers. "I have a good relationship with Smiths News," she says. "They are pretty good at sorting us out - but then they know if they don't they will have to deal with me!"
No wholesaler is going to get an easy ride from Helen. She keeps invoices pasted into a diary and can look back over previous weeks to see sales patterns. If there's a reason why a certain title dipped one week - perhaps a particularly rainy day or some damaged copies - she's straight on to Smiths to make sure they don't drop the allocation for next time.
"Helen's our secret weapon," says Nick. "She's relentless with the suppliers and has developed a relationship with them over the years which suits us both. She will chase for credits and have returns ready to go at least a day early. If ever she's been away for a few days, she'll moan at me if I mess up her paperwork. We rarely have any supply issues at all, and if we do they can expect a call from me."
Occasional bloopers do occur. The store's one fixed sale copy of the New York Times, at £8.50, suddenly doubled to two one week, and despite Spar's rigid control of core and optional ranges, unexpected titles do sometimes pop up in the boxes. "Boxouts have reduced considerably recently," says Nick. "We sent a list of titles we didn't want to Smiths and that seems to have done the trick." Frustrated retailers across the country should take note.
Nick is considering bringing newspapers and magazines together in the same fixture, as he thinks those who buy a paper will also grab a magazine while they're there.
The formula that works for this Cambridge store, with Helen making the category her own, is now ready to be applied to more Spar stores.