An independent voice
Peter Steemers is the new president of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents (NFRN). He speaks to Fionnuala Carolan about his plans for the year ahead and his personal experiences as an independent retailer in rural Ireland
21 May 2014
As a seasoned retailer in the small town of Bunclody in Co. Wexford, Peter Steemers has seen the Irish retail landscape change considerably over the past 10 years and he understands only too well the struggles currently faced by retailers. He held the role of NFRN president in 2006 so he took on this position again with his eyes wide open and is determined to grow the membership of the organisation this year.
"From a political point of view, we’ve been very proactive over the last couple of years," he says. "One of my aims is to try to increase membership. In the district of Ireland there are around 20 branches but over half of those are inactive at the moment. There are members but they don’t meet up so I’m going to try to encourage them to meet and do something. We’re here to help and if you have a problem you should share it. Things can be resolved. That’s an area that has been neglected for the past 4/5 years. There has not been a lot of recruitment happening, so to speak," he says.
During May, Steemers is spending a week in the west of Ireland calling on retailers and encouraging them to meet up with fellow retailers and share their issues. This is just a starting point as he intends to make his way around the country in the next few months.
"I think retailers need to see someone else as opposed to just their retail development managers. If they see another member calling in, it might have a good effect. We will try to encourage even 2/3 of them to meet up and have a branch president. At least you are active and alive and you can ring each other or if you hear of something good or bad, you can share it."
The Spring National Council
Steemers is also a member of the National Council of the NFRN and when we met he had just returned from the NFRN Spring National Council in the UK. The National Council is held in the national president’s own district which this year is in Southhampton. He says it was an interesting few days. "You come home pretty tired. You need to be focused and a lot of stuff might not affect us in Ireland but it’s good to get an overall picture."
I wondered if the NFRN as a whole were focused on the Irish market? He says that even though Ireland is only a small district in relation to the UK, there is plenty of interest in the Irish cohort. One of the previous national presidents, Ciaran McDonald, was Irish and he says there has always been a strong Irish sentiment.
He says that stores in the UK have similar issues to those in Ireland but the main difference between us is population. They have in excess of 65 million people in the UK so they need to be highly organised. "They have retail delivery times and estimated retail delivery times – they use all this terminology that we wouldn’t be used to. For them, it’s vital that everything comes on time. One couple I spoke with, said they have only survived because they have a newsround. He gets up at 3am to do the newsround and it’s a vital part of their business."
The issue of tobacco
Back in Ireland, the NFRN has done fantastic work highlighting the issues of plain packaging and the illicit tobacco trade to the government over the past number of years under Joe Sweeney’s tenure. I wondered if Peter Steemers would be continuing to highlight this issue during his reign.
"Not really," he says. "I think the issue of whether it’s coming in or not is dead. They are going to do it, end of story. The thing is that we have to accept it. We do know from the Australians that illicit sales have increased since the arrival of plain packaging, so that’s a problem. The one positive thing is that the illicit packet will be more identifiable. If you see someone with a proper packet of Rothmans say, you’ll have to ask, where did you get it?" Tobacco sales can account for up to 50% of a newsagent’s sales so the increase in the illicit trade is a big worry for NFRN members.
Steemers has been doing his own research on the sales of cigarettes over the years and found that price, not packaging, affected sales.
"I did a survey on the main brands that I sell, such as Carrolls, Silk Cut Purple, Benson & Hedges etc, on my own system from 2004 up to 2010, and I broke it down by sales and years, and the biggest drop was after the 50 cents per packet rise in 2006/2007. The biggest drop in sales happened after that, not after the display ban. I’m trying to tell the guys in England not to worry about the display ban, worry about illegal selling. If you can convince them to keep the cost down, smuggling will be less, whereas we just drive them to it here. We are the most expensive country in Europe for cigarettes."
While cigarettes are a big part of his business, magazines and newspapers are even bigger. His store, in the centre of Bunclody is well known in the area as one of the last remaining independent newsagents. The name Steemers is Dutch as his father is from Amsterdam, and this is where he spent his early youth, only moving to Bunclody when he was 11. The shop was run by his parents until he took over in 1985. He had studied construction in Bolton Street in Dublin so prior to taking over the shop he had worked in construction in Dublin and Cork.
There are two full walls of magazines, covering everything from fashion to food to farming. "We’ve always been a destination shop for magazines," he explains. "You don’t just pop in here, you come here. You come to get your magazines and cards."
Aside from the impressive collection of magazines and greeting cards, he sells CDs, DVDs, video games and even musical instruments. He has also tried out many services such as photography and photcopying over the years but with the advent of camera phones and social media, there is less demand for photo developing and emailing has reduced the need for photocopying.
"If you look at the services we have – video is gone, music sales are gone. I used to do cassettes and I invested a lot of money in stands. A few trad reps still come in and we might take a couple of hundred euros worth but that would be it. I sell a few guitars, a few accordians and I’d restring a guitar, it gives us something that others don’t have and keeps us unique but there’s not much business in it."
One of his most lucrative products, aside from the magazines, is ice cream. He is just 22 miles from Courtown and on a warm day he describes it as ‘bedlam’. "I have the name for the ice cream so people stop off on the way to the beach," he says.
Drop in footfall
There has been a considerable drop in footfall in the town in recent times because of the closure of other independent businesses and banks. On the day of our visit the town looked very busy but Steemers explained that a lot of those cars are just parked there for the day while people commute to Dublin. There is also a lot of competition in the vicinity with three supermarkets and three petrol stations with shops in the town.
"My customer numbers have dropped severely, probably due to the recession more than anything else. It was September 2008 when we felt the slump. In 2009, trade slowed down more and more. Then the likes of Mars and Nestlé didn’t want to deal with you unless you were on direct debit and wanted you to go to the cash and carry. Direct debits are one of the biggest curses as far as I’m concerned. It’s very convenient but you’ve no control."
While he believes that the climate is difficult for the independent retailer, he thinks that certain ones will survive because of location and service levels.
He says: "People love the local store but they need to support you."
Despite a tough few years, he is optimistic about the future and hopes that the NFRN can make a difference to its members through creating support networks. He intends to meet as many retailers as possible during the year so keep an eye out for Peter Steemers as he is coming your way!