Entering the stylish new reception area of Yeoman House, the central London home of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, it's impossible to miss the slogan 'Representing Leading News and Convenience Retailers' proudly displayed beneath the NFRN logo.

It's a small detail, but that use of the C-word speaks volumes about the direction that the Federation and its 17,000 members are heading. The traditional CTN business, built on the three legs of confectionery, tobacco and news and for so long the bedrock of the association's membership, is under assault, with two of those legs - tobacco and newspapers - looking decidedly wobbly.

With changes in newspaper distribution still rumbling through the industry, and the likelihood of a complete rethink of tobacco retailing, you might forgive incoming NFRN president Suleman Khonat - known to all as Solly - for feeling he's chosen the wrong time to don the chains of office. But the Blackburn retailer, who takes the reins this week at an annual conference with the theme 'facing the challenge of change', believes that independent retailers need the Federation now more than ever.

"Change is unquestionably occurring in the news and magazines sector which we've got to learn to adapt to, realistically approach and find the best answers for our members," he says. "But there are also changes outside of news and magazines which we see as extremely positive and which members will be able to build on.

"Against all the odds, membership is increasing at the moment," he adds. "We're hearing more that people are looking to their local shops, which is excellent news for the sector, and we also believe that we offer a diverse range of advice, help and support which independent retailers appreciate. This year there's been a slight increase in membership, after some years of decline, and that's a very positive sign."

But the NFRN itself estimates that 500 newsagents are closing a year, and it's those who stick too rigidly to the old model who are most at risk. "We commit a lot of time, energy and resource to encouraging our members to do at shop level what they need to do to survive," says NFRN head of marketing and business development Graeme Collins, "and that is about broadening their base and becoming more 'convenience' in their offering."

The Federation runs a 'model store' scheme where an expert retail team works with a member on the redevelopment of their premises - a service taken up by about 100 retailers last year. For those who prefer to resist the lure of the symbol groups, it's handy access to independent advice. However, it's the member who needs to make the choice to revolutionise their business.

"We can encourage, educate and facilitate, but the one thing we can't do is insist," Collins says. "We'd like to see them diversify into something that will give them good turnover and good profit. It's sadly still the case that thousands of our members have huge amounts of space devoted to the wrong things."

Says Solly: "We're here to help and advise if people want it. We don't go and tell them what to do."

Equally important is the Federation's role as the mouthpiece of its members. Its response to the marginalisation of Dawsons News in the supply chain, and the impending end of the Newspaper Code of Practice, has been a submission to the OFT and an online petition encouraging newsagents to call for a CC inquiry.

Despite retailers' frustrations with the news trade supply chain, Solly believes that cordial relations are the way forward. "Of course, there are issues with the wholesalers and publishers which divide us, and we'll continue to hold negotiations on these, but there's one issue on which we're unified, and that's that we all share the problem of a market that's in decline. We all want to see the news and magazine market revitalised and we'll work with anyone who shares that aim. The independent sector is uniquely placed to do something about this, and that's our message to publishers."

With its network of branches, district councils and a national committee, as well as 30 full-time field representatives and a member helpline, the Federation is confident it can cascade information and persuade retailers to protest about the changes that will damage their business.

What it can't do, however, is call them to collective action - it's forbidden from doing so by law. Getting busy retailers to look up from the counter and see the bigger picture is not easy, however; at the time of writing, fewer than 700 of the 17,000 members had signed the online petition intended to safeguard their future.

"We raise awareness of these issues, and do all we can, but I think to a degree they look to us to do as much as we can for them. They know we're beavering away on their behalf," says Solly.

What members appreciate most, he adds, is advice on changes they can make that will boost turnover and profit here and now. "As a sector we have opportunities as well as problems and we must not be preoccupied with the problems," he says. "Let's be realistic, let's not spend half our lives wishing we could change the way the world is. Let's concentrate on being successful with the world as it is."
Beyond news and mags
"As news and magazines have been in decline and for the average member now represent about 25%-30% of turnover, one of the clear messages for the membership is that they want the Federation to help them across their whole business," says the NFRN's Graeme Collins.

The Federation's call centre receives 2,000 enquires a month regarding its commercial services and 14,000 members take advantage of one or more.

As well as preferential deals on goods and services, a banking package with Alliance and Leicester is held by more than 30% of the membership. About 10,000 have adopted a category partnership scheme developed with Mars.

An exclusive NFRN member deal with Payzone extends to 3,600 members so far - "an extra £1,000 a year in their back pockets," says Collins.

A "very positive" relationship with Booker started this year, with members' purchase of grocery lines through the wholesaler up 7%.

"There's an enormous theoretical potential for suppliers in our 17,000 members, and we have the resource to act as a marketing conduit between the supplier and the retailer," Collins adds. "It works extraordinarily well."

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