Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Royal Mail – death spiral for letters

So we learn that the “Royal” Mail is wanting to bring forward the “last posting time” to early afternoon or even sometime in the morning.

Collection times at almost half the Royal Mail’s collection boxes will be brought forward to between 9am and 3pm.

Between 45,000 and 50,000 of the company’s post boxes will move to the earlier collections.

Royal Mail says there will still be a late posting box within half a mile of areas affected and will add 2,000 post boxes to its 115,000 network.

The earlier collections will be picked up by delivery staff as part of their existing rounds.
BBC News website 8 August 2014 : Royal Mail cuts half its later collection times

Surely they realise that they are sending their letters business into a death spiral?

  • It is ludicrously expensive to send a piece of paper through the mail, so
  • More of us use email, so
  • The postboxes have less mail in them, so
  • The “Royal” Mail argue that it is not worth sending a van round to collect the mail, so
  • We have to go further to post a letter, so …

If you have to get your post in the box by mid-day, you may struggle to reply the same day to a letter that you receive. Indeed given the above proposal and the tardiness of deliveries in my area, I may end up having to post my reply before I have received the original.

Is a postal service now an out-dated idea? Should we say that if a physical delivery is required we should use a courier/parcels service, and use email where it is only information that has to be delivered?

This has three problems:

1) Delivery. Couriers want signatures, so if you are out delivery will fail and the delivery office is often miles away – so Saturday mornings become a dash all the way across the county to try to collect a parcel – whose value is probably only a fraction of the cost of driving to collect it.

Abandoning the requirement for signatures, will only work when courier firms treat their drivers decently (in terms of drops per hour) and employ those with local knowledge – so that you have some confidence that they will find your house and attempt to deliver. The address I give on orders that I know will be courier delivered has to be practically a set of step by step directions as to how to find my house.

2) Collection. Getting couriers to collect is as difficult as getting them to deliver. And they don’t have post offices where you can drop parcels off. OK, this may improve as various courier companies are concluding drop-off arrangements with shops like newsagents. Perhaps they are concluding such agreements almost as quickly as Post Office Counters are closing post offices!

3) Sentiment. How do you send a sentiment? Email doesn’t cut it; it needs to be expressed on a nice card or piece of writing paper in a matching envelope with a genuine signature. Sending a sentiment such as “I’m sorry” or “I love you”, does not work if the recipient has to give up their Saturday morning to drive across the county to collect the card.

The conclusion that I have to draw is that a postal service is a national network and should be treated as such.

Introducing competition in the shape of multiple operators does not necessarily lead to a better service. National networks by definition have high infrastructure costs (the network). You don’t want to unnecessarily duplicate your network or the costs associated with it. If you are duplicating your network costs you will inevitably have to drive your other costs down – usually by treating your staff badly with blunt-instrument performance measures (drops per hour is the favourite) and by demanding a level of flexibility that means that your staff never get to know their “patch”.

With national networks there are also huge economies of scale. It is the drop in scale that is making collection from post boxes problematic.

National networks can also meet that old-fashioned concept of a social need. If sending a letter in the UK, where you or your correspondent are should not make any difference. The price should be the same and we should have an expectation of a similar level of service.

We have had too many examples of national networks being subject to marketisation and competition – and usually it has led to higher prices and a drop in service. Monopolies can be the best way to run a national network. The new orthodoxy is not always right.


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