News retailing on an island poses its problems, but for Nick Farnsworth it is no obstacle to success. Robin Mannering finds out more
Being a big fish in a small pond can have its advantages for a news retailer on the Isle of Wight. Competition is less intense than on the mainland, a large proportion of the population are elderly and thus attached to print newspapers, and trends change at the same sedate pace as island life. So for retailer Nick Farnsworth, with a successful home news delivery (HND) service, loyal customer base and recognisable local brand, it’s the perfect place to run a business.
The owner of Newport’s Farnsworth News, Nick has built up a thriving business and esteemed reputation as the island’s main news delivery service. His weekly news bill tops £7,000 and he has 900 HND customers, who all trickle into the shop to pay for their deliveries and spend on other categories at the same time. His HND sales include high revenue titles such as the main national broadsheets, which are often sold on vouchers, although The Sun is the most popular paper. For his local HND customers he employs 18 news boys and girls, while for further afield he deploys a delivery van which delivers to prisons, local authorities and colleges. Indeed, his exemplary news offering won him the title Independent News Retailer of the Year at this year’s Convenience Retail Awards.
Size: 1,000sq ft
Staff: 8 plus 18 news boys/girls
Opening hours: Monday to Friday, 5am-6pm, Sunday 5.30am-1pm
Additional services: HND, National Lottery, PayPoint
But it’s not all plain sailing for Nick. The choppy waters separating the island from the mainland are metaphorical as well as literal. The recession has taken its toll on the island - which suffers from a ‘brain drain’ as young people head to the mainland in search of work. “I’ve been hit in the past couple of years, and broadsheet sales have declined as prices have crept up,” he says. Nick also talks of reps who refuse to cross the water on rough days and “manage to pull the wool over their bosses’ eyes”.
Indeed, the island is out on a limb, and Nick frequently has to go out on one himself in order to satisfy his customers’ demands. For example, one customer wanted a Rugby Leaguer & League Express. But his news wholesaler, Menzies, refused to send Nick just one copy. “They’re not interested in getting a single copy, they want to sell 500 copies to WH Smiths or Tesco or whatever,” Nick says. But he found a way round. “I started ordering five copies and sent four back. So they chuck away four copies every week just so we can sell one!”
Eventually, Menzies’ system worked out he was selling only one copy, so cut the order down to two. “There’s no human flexibility it’s all done by a computer,” he says. “They just say: ‘No, we can’t get that.’ We have to persuade them.”
Nick blames the monopolistic nature of the industry for Menzies’ hands-off attitude. “I don’t think they abuse their monopoly, but it is difficult to get things over here,” he admits. However, he tries not to dwell on the supply issues. “I’ve always said to everyone who works here ‘spend less time moaning about not having something and more time getting on the phone demanding to have it tomorrow morning’,” he asserts.
Nick, along with his wife Lou and son Sam, keeps a close eye on the magazines in stock. “We scan every section through a four-week period and if a title is older than three-and-a-half weeks and it’s a monthly, we’ll pull it off and send it back so the shelf remains fresh. We’re forever picking and choosing what titles to stock and what we should knock on the head.”
The mainstream magazine titles are the best-sellers - such as Radio Times and TV World - but niche titles also enjoy a good following. Tractor and shooting magazines are doing particularly well at the moment, as are bus titles, driven by the presence of a nearby bus depot.
Nick refuses to stand still, and eight months ago completed a £27,000 store refit, resulting in a bigger magazine rack, new lighting and a more efficient drinks cooler. Nick and Sam had been planning the refit for a few years, but the opening of a sixth-form college opposite spurred them to make the move. “It used to be a middle school, but now there are 2,500 teenagers who have their parents’ disposable income,” Nick explains.
The family are also trying to engage with their younger customers via the internet. “We’ve just started a Facebook page. We’ve got quite a following,” Sam says. “We’ve run a few competitions and now have about 182 ‘likes’ - but in one week thousands of people might see our page because it’s on their friends’ Facebook wall.”
They’ve also put old pictures of the store on Facebook “it got people reminiscing,” he adds. It’s early days in their digital marketing revolution, but “if we work out how to use it properly, it will go well,” Nick adds.
He admits that the internet represents a threat to print, but is relaxed about it for the time being. “There’s a long way to go because there’s nothing like picking up a paper in the morning,” he says. “But it’s difficult to know if there will be a place for a printed copy in 10 years.”
He is also not immune to the multiples treading on independents’ toes as on the mainland. “But unless they’re a true newsagent, it’s no real competition as far as news goes,” he says.
“We’re lucky on the Isle of Wight, having an island environment, with different trading patterns. I don’t know if we’d sink or swim on the mainland.” If that comes to pass, C-Store is ready to place its bets on the latter scenario.
Independent News Retailer of the Year
Winner: Farnsworth News, Isle of Wight
The judges at News International were bowled over by Nick and his family’s professionalism. They said: “Farnsworth News recognises that a well-run news offering, including home news delivery, is a vital part of any store as it can maximise footfall and increase general sales, not just news.
“The news category is well-presented and well-merchandised. Staff also provide a consistently efficient and friendly service, ensuring customer loyalty and commitment.
“Farnsworth News does a fantastic job and is a great example to other news retailers.”