Caroline Hemmings – Out to Luch

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Just as Settlement City’s newsagency moved last month to a better location in the middle of the shopping centre, Lake Cathie’s newsagency closed. Again. Newsagents, Susie finds, are facing up to a “lottery” of fortune in changing times.

With electrifyingly frizzy blonde hair and a wide grin, Lighthouse Plaza Newsagency owner Caroline Hemmings greets a stream of customers daily, buying their papers and lottery tickets. Newsagencies more than most other businesses rely on very small, swift, sales hundreds of times over every day, usually seven days a week.
But beneath Hemmings’ dizzying corkscrew curls, as she processes the flows of regular single-digit transactions, lies a smart business brain. The good “news” – headlines even – for Lighthouse Beach, Emerald Downs, Crestwood and Dahlsford residents is that she’s committed to stay put for a further three years, ensuring they can still be sure of their papers and punts at least until late 2017. Early 2018 is more than just a critical date she’ll assess her lease renewal options around, it’s also when a moratorium ends on lottery owners Tatts bursting into supermarkets, delivering what the newsagents’ association says could be “absolute devastation”. The NSW Labor government sold the lotteries to Tatts in 2010; now Labor’s small business spokesman is quoted as agreeing with the association that Tatts’ expansion “would see the 1500 outlets currently selling lottery products go broke”.

Meanwhile, despair if not devastation has been the lot of Lighthouse consumers since the Watonga Street main newsagency vanished overnight three years ago. Home delivery of metro newspapers to its widespread Lighthouse district “territory” never resumed, no agency willing to take it on. Guess why.

So a great number of Port Macquarie homes can’t take advantage of the publishers’ offers of digital-plus-home delivery packages designed to promote online readership. Many, some elderly, or for want of technology, or purely for preference, don’t want to make the change anyway; they rely on Hemmings’ newsagency, or else must take their chances at convenience stores like fuel outlets or Coles, with limited stocks. Independent small businesses such as petrol stations, butchers, even pharmacies – like grocer’s shops of the past – walk on eggshells in the face of changing retail and societal models and the $60bn p.a. supermarkets’ progressive penetration into their traditional sectors. All the existing independent stores in the Lighthouse centre can find some of their products competing on Coles’ shelves: the pharmacy, DVD shop, bakery, newsagency … even the Asian takeway meals vendor. The butcher here closed years ago; (the optometrist went recently, too). Commercial websites reveal multiple newsagencies around the country, even in big centres like Townsville, reducing their listing prices for a sale. You can buy into Brisbane for $50,000, or: “Offer!” appeals one. Many make no, or small, delivery runs. (Perhaps the Port sector is already rationalised: the prices of a half dozen or so on the market around our region suggest buoyant owner incomes and prospects).
Three and a half years ago Hemmings had been in her sub-agency a mere ten weeks when the padlocks abruptly went on at her “parent” agency at Watonga – abandoning her without paper and magazine supplies. Six weeks later the newsagency near the Horton Street roundabout closed down.

So value that newspaper, it’s not just trucked to her doorstep. Hemmings rises at 4.30 in time to collect the papers in town around 5.15. Not only a solo business woman, she’s also a sole operator at home, single mum to Maddison, 15, in Year 10 at MacKillop College, and carer for her elderly widower father living in his own home. Her younger son Brendan, 29, works in Sydney; her eldest, Christopher Nesbitt, with a partner and baby son, has just opened acupuncture rooms at Watonga Street. Hemmings drops in to her Dad’s to prepare his medications and breakfast tray – with morning paper – and is in the shop well before sunrise, around 6. She’s open 11 hours weekdays, 7 to 6, and 7 to 11 at weekends. “It’s quite a long day,” she says with understatement. “I do it only with the help of the best staff in the world, Libby and Trish.” The two staff effectively job-share 3:1 with Libby picking up the papers and running the show on the days when Hemmings is bookkeeping, banking, doing reconciliations, stocking the lolly display “and every other thing you run around with when you run your own business”.

Hemmings’ parents retired here from Sydney 28 years ago; she arrived eight years back. When the sub-agency opportunity came up, “the accounting, I had that nailed”: she’d solid experience in accounting in the construction industry and running her own accountancy practice for other enterprises. “But it was a learning curve [in that] I hadn’t worked in face to face retail before.” There was stock control, lotteries training, and the chap who “yelled, screamed, abused me and swore because he couldn’t get his Lotto”- the bank hadn’t immediately connected the EFTPOS machine. “That was my first week of being introduced to the public. Oh, my goodness! But, honestly, there’d only be one cranky person in five weeks of trading. I’ve a beautiful environment here, the customers who are regulars, it’s very good.”

So: a big percentage of newsagents’ revenue is through lotteries and, with the downturn in paper sales, they say it’s vital to their survival. On paper sales, sub-agencies get only half the commission main agencies take. Hemmings says lotteries pay the rent and if supermarkets encroached in 2018, taking half her income, she’d have to reassess if her niche business was viable, with no choice but to close. “Probably 85 per cent [of agencies] would,” she reckons. But: “I’ve got the loveliest community here who support me. They know small business struggles these days so they’ll go and get their Coles stuff and then come back and get their papers here. Which is just wonderful; they understand. If you don’t support small businesses, they’re not going to be here.” Ever inclined to look on the bright side, though, an effervescent Hemmings shrugs and smiles brightly: “At least by 2018 Maddison will have finished school. Maybe … a trip around Europe together!”

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