Convenience is key for customers
Coming through covid and now facing a cost-of-living crisis, independent newsagents are finding ways to mitigate challenges, as the Fed NI President, Judith Mercer tells NR.
One of the oldest and longest running trade associations in the UK, the Fed (formally known as the National Federation of Retail Newsagents) has been supporting members for over 100 years.
With approximately 9,500 members representing some 15,000 stores, and with around 450 of those in Northern Ireland, the Fed NI President Judith Mercer knows the organisation has an important role to play in supporting its members.
Owner of Hamilton News on Belfast’s Cregagh Road, Judith was keen to remind members that the Fed is a multifaceted organisation, describing it as a “go-to place” for retailers if they have any issues.
“Independent retailers can often feel isolated and alone, and this was all the more evident during the pandemic,” said Judith.
“Being part of the Fed means there is always support available and just feeling that you are part of a bigger family of retailers helps.
“During the cost-of-living crisis, Fed members have received excellent advice and outstanding offers to help them save money. The Fed is also fighting our corner at government level to promote the cause of the independent retailer and highlight the difficulties we face.
SUPPORT FOR MEMBERS
“I think a lot of our members did not realise what we can do for them. If you make the call to the Fed, they can decide the best direction for the assistance you need,” said Judith.
“There is a lot of help there, including good legal cover for members, issues for different areas such as test purchasing, they can help you with that.
“During covid a lot of our retailers felt quite isolated and the Fed really did reach out to a lot of them. Many of our retailers had to close in the city centre during covid, so we were able to secure some funding for those who were badly affected.
“We all need to work together for our members, obviously now that we have no functioning government, it has been very difficult.”
‘Being part of the Fed means there is always support available and just feeling that you are part of a bigger family of retailers helps’
As part of this, the Fed has been reaching out to other trade bodies and organisations across Northern Ireland, in a bid to expand their reach and ultimately support mechanisms available to members.
Part of this support and advice network incorporates the transfer of the lottery from Camelot to Allwyn, set to take effect early next year.
“There is a portal opened up which allows you to upload your details there,” explained Judith.
“All the details will move across to Allwyn, but it’s making sure your name and details are correct, that you don’t miss any emails and contact your Camelot rep. We have been assured there is nobody going to fall through the net, but people need to be mindful there are no emails being missed,” she added.
‘A DIFFERENT APPROACH’
Having been in business for 40 years, Judith and her husband, Bill are very well-known businesspeople and have witnessed some significant changes in the industry across those four decades. However, one of the stand-out challenges was the pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns, which brought changes to consumers’ shopping habits and what they demanded from their local retailers.
“During lockdown we had to look at different things, take a different approach to help maintain our business,” said Judith.
“Before covid I had looked into selling balloons and during covid this was very successful for us. We are still very steady with them and have created another little business within our business that has given us a small profit.
“We are still doing home delivery with newspapers. November is home delivery month and the publishers are looking at ways to keep home delivery going. There are some people who cannot get to our shop, so it’s taking our shop to them and this is still a strong delivery service, and we have returned to our core customers who get their groceries delivered from us.”
Describing their newsagents, Hamilton News, as “a Tardis” Judith said diversification was key to helping smaller shops and CTNs stay open.
“Parcels have been phenomenal with us. When you get customers here, it is your chance to try and sell them something. It’s about getting the people into the shop and after that it’s down to the retailer to sell them something.
“It’s about talking to the customer and telling them what’s available, for example the Fed has secured the facility for us to be able to provide the new Park Christmas Club saving scheme for Christmas 2024 through PayPoint. You have to be a Fed member to avail of this.
“You are constantly trying to work the seasons, eg with balloons and cards, back to school, Halloween. You are trying to use things that will work in all different seasons/months, such as the perfume or candles.
“Once you add all of these things together, that is when shops become more profitable and not start to slip away. I have been in this job a long time, diversification is needed.”
There are other challenges the industry is facing, with Fed members advised on how best to overcome those.
“The main challenge is trying to maintain a successful business or even stay in business in the face of rising costs, while in the news trade we are being hit with increased cover prices but reduced profit margins. Another serious challenge faced by all retailers is a sharp rise in shop theft.
“The only way we can overcome these challenges is to maintain a high level of customer service and offer the personal touch that the big supermarkets can’t provide.
“In terms of retail crime, we need more support from the police and the justice system to deter criminals, as well as financial support to increase security measures such as better-quality CCTV systems.
“Theft is back on the increase here,” added Judith. “We have found a lot of people are ‘chancing their arm’ as such.”
However, there are many positive and encouraging signs for independent retailers, with a recent Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) Community Barometer revealing that 18-24-year-olds are the group most keen on having more convenience stores in their local area.
Products such as MrBeast Feastables bars are a hugely popular item with younger customers and Spar was chosen as the brand’s exclusive convenience partner, seeing over 330 Spar stores in Northern Ireland stocking the bars.
Judith is also a symbol store owner, with a Spar shop and Post Office a short distance from her newsagents, allowing her to see both sides.
“When the MrBeast bars came out I was able to source stocks of it, but it was gone in a day. We are always looking for the next footfall driver and it’s about keeping an eye on social media and seeing the latest trends.
“Young people really do want more convenience – they like something and they want it now.
“There are shops all over Northern Ireland like ourselves that if they were not there in the community, that community would be at a big loss.
“I just love this job. We are very privileged to have wonderful customers, we know them better than some of their own families know them. We want to help them too, helping our friends or customers for different charity events. It’s done because that is what we do. We try to support local charities, and of course, it’s good for business when we are seen to be helping others too.”
TO VIEW THE FULL INTERVIEW WITH JUDITH MERCER IN THE AUGUST-SEPTEMBER ISSUE OF NEIGHBOURHOOD RETAILER, CLICK HERE