Independent retailers in rural parts say they feel abandoned by many of the UK’s key suppliers, as sales calls and support dry up.

Some suppliers have axed calls to remote independent stores completely, leaving store owners in the dark about new products, merchandising advice and legislative updates, retailers claim.

In Barnstaple, Devon, Frankmarsh Stores owner Lesley Brown said the growing disinterest in her store had left her feeling “greatly disheartened.”

“Certain suppliers made less effort last year, and despite asking for help it felt like they would rather deal with the multiples,” Lesley said.

“We were recently informed by Coca-Cola that after April they would no longer be visiting independents in North Devon as they cannot get in enough calls in a day. It’s a similar story with some of our confectionery reps. Sometimes we go months without seeing anyone,” she said.

West Sussex retailer Colin Woods of Amberley Village Stores also complained of a falling number of visits from reps.

“We hardly ever see a rep in our store any more. Tobacco constitutes 15% of our sales yet I’m lucky if I get a visit once every four months. Some companies don’t bother with us at all. I sell more than 30 different lines of Border biscuits but have never once seen a rep.”

Lesley added: “I understand that money is tight and logistically it’s a challenge when they’ve got to drive 20 or 30 miles between stores, but there has to be a better solution.”

She suggested wholesaler-hosted quarterly forums in depots where retailers could meet key suppliers.

Sylvia Winter of Creaton Villlage Shop & Post Office, Creaton, Northamptonshire, said: “I think suppliers are cutting back on rep visits to smaller stores. They can go to a large store who might take five boxes of product, whereas they’d have to make five separate visits to smaller stores to get the same business. Everyone is looking to cut costs where they can – even big companies and reps are being given wider areas to cover.”

Rural Shops Alliance chairman Trevor West acknowledged it was a problem, and urged those suppliers struggling to access rural stores to consider improving their online resources as an alternative.

The five major branded suppliers contacted by Convenience Store denied that visits to rural and remote stores were being cut.

The suppliers’ view

“In actual fact, in recent years we’ve invested more money in more people to visit outlets. Our focus is to develop better quality outlets, which is where you get better return on investment. It doesn’t matter if they’re a city centre or a rural store, it’s about the quality of the outlet. This is defined by a variety of factors, not just footfall or turnover, and we also speak to cash and carries. We’re happy to visit new outlets as well if they have potential.”

Graham Walker, trade communications manager at Nestlé UK

“At Imperial Tobacco we invest significantly in our sales force. We currently have over 300 highly trained sales representatives, who are focused on the needs of retailers and their supply chain. Our team covers every tobacco distributor in the UK, including rural stockists, offering impartial category advice on the tobacco category and the surrounding legislative issues.”

Imperial Tobacco head of convenience Mike Laney

“JTI dedicates its support and commitment to the thousands of retailers who sell tobacco in the UK by providing regular contact from its 220 JTI sales reps. The JTI sales team visits 34,000 customers in cities, towns and rural locations across the UK every four weeks.”

JTI head of communications Jeremy Blackburn

“Coca-Cola Enterprises has a large sales force in GB. Our sales reps call on a wide variety of retail outlets across independents and out of home channels.  We constantly evaluate the services we provide to our customers to ensure the most efficient ways of working, and this naturally includes how often and how many calls are made by the sales team. Any changes to the arrangements for individual customers would naturally be discussed with the customer in the first instance.”

Spokesman, Coca-Cola Enterprises spokesman