Impartial advice is a little harder to find, especially if it comes from a company with no obvious connection to the newstrade.
As the UK's largest wholesaler to CTNs, forecourts and c-stores, and operator of the Mace symbol group, Palmer & Harvey (P&H) may know all about supply chain logistics, but it is excluded from the closed shop that is newstrade distribution. But that, says director of marketing Richard Hayhoe, is no reason not to launch Plus News, its free category management service for P&H account holders.
"It's our intention to be a total retail solution to our customers, and just because we don't supply news and mags it's no reason not to offer the kind of support we give for other categories," he says. "We've had retailers asking us if we can do anything to help them with the category. It's complex and time consuming, not to mention a huge drag on cash flow, if you're trying to stock upwards of 600 titles on a four-metre display."
Miles Harvey, operations director at the Park Garage Group, was one of the first retailers to adopt Plus News when it was launched last year. He had had his share of frustration in several years of dealing with the news supply chain and jumped at the chance to join forces with a willing partner.
"I remember when magazines were all over the place," he says. "We've always seen the category as worthwhile, even in our smaller stores, because it's a great footfall driver and a service for the customers, but it takes up more than its fair share of time and effort."
With P&H's help Park has refined the category to the best-selling titles for each of its stores. At its recently opened Park & Shop forecourt site in Harrow, London, this means that the two-metre, nine-deck magazine display is built around a planogram drawn up specifically for the store.
"One thing we learned early on is that retailers often don't know what sells and what doesn't," says Hayhoe. "The top 300 titles account for 80% of sales, but you'll often see too much space allocated to magazines that just don't deserve their space on the shelf.
"Many retailers don't scan mags because it's too complicated - you'd have to scan in titles you don't even want to sell. So we work with Lucid Direct, which also advises Tesco and Shell, to identify the best-selling titles. We have access to national magazine sales data and draw informed decisions from that, but we also take into account a store's location and customer demographics to come up with a planogram that's best for them."
Some members, he says, have reduced their range by half without any loss in sales.
And, of course, all this doesn't mean that there isn't room for the store owner to use their discretion and display a few titles they believe will go well locally, or order extra copies of special editions.
For Miles and his manager at Harrow, Satya Koodala, the partnership means that a complicated category suddenly becomes very simple. There's a copy of the planogram cunningly hidden behind one of the shelves and any member of staff can stock or remerchandise the fixture. It's a neat and compact area, just inside the door, with full facings across its width and hotspots featuring OK!, Company and new release Homme. A small display by the tills reminds customers that there's a bigger range behind them, and it helps to encourage impulse purchases. In four months of trading they've seen sales of the category rise 21%.
"The simple rule is, if it's not on the planogram it doesn't go on the shelf," says Satya. "We don't stock partworks at all, for example. Everything else just goes straight back to the wholesaler."
This is where P&H's influence comes in useful. "We're able to stop unauthorised titles hitting your store," says Heyhoe. "With more than 600 stores now taking part in the scheme, we're starting to have the influence of a multiple. Wholesalers realise our retailers are sticking to a planogram, so there's no reason for them to send unwanted titles." That means that Plus News members are seeing fewer boxouts, and therefore tying up less cash in sale and return.
Plus News goes beyond simple ranging, however. The members' guide is a weighty folder which explains how the category works, from an overview of the market which includes a breakdown of market share for national and regional newspapers, magazines ranked by sales in convenience and forecourts, and explanations of carriage service charges and how to deal with early returns and rejected credits.
Also included is a detailed breakdown of each wholesaler's delivery and returns procedures, as well as illustrations of Smiths and Menzies' invoices and delivery notes, pointing out how to check stock against delivery and tally copies received against the invoice.
Miles says he was so impressed by the guide that he has incorporated it into Park & Shop's internal e-learning scheme for staff across its 84 stores.
As Hayhoe points out, it's information you might expect a symbol group to provide to its members, but until now it has not been readily available to independents. "We wanted to give some context behind the category, so we've tried to explain not just how to carry out the procedures, but why," he says. "News is a vital part of convenience retailing - newspaper shoppers visit an average of four times a week, remember - and as part of P&H's aim to offer a total retail solution, it's a category we couldn't ignore."
● If you are a Palmer & Harvey account holder and would like to find out more about its free Plus News service, call 0208 614 0817