First it was office mail. Then it was music and photography. Then it was newspapers and books. Now it’s public libraries and post office services. The digital revolution has rapidly created a number of new industries, but it is also slowly destroying – or at the very least challenging the conventions of – a number of very old ones.
Historically, population growth, rising incomes, globalization and the increasing number of individual households and businesses meant more and more people communicating with each other. In short, more people meant more people thinking about things and buying stuff that needed to be delivered from one place to another.
However, more recently, the growth of digitalization, virtualization and mobile communications means that we have witnessed a significant shift away from the physical delivery of paper-based items such as bills, payments, statements, letters, postcards and greeting cards. And it looks as though this shift will accelerate, with magazines, newspapers, movies, games and books all becoming members of a weightless economy, which does not require physical distribution, warehousing or delivery.
But the challenge isn’t restricted to declining volumes of physical mail. The postal industry is also facing rapidly rising transportation costs, regulated pricing, strong unions and the impact of new competitors that are much less restricted by legacy costs such as pensions.
Not looking good is it? But I’m a firm believer that where there’s a big problem there’s also a large opportunity waiting in the wings. Post offices and postal delivery services come from a public service tradition that fits nicely with emergent trends like localism. The Post Office may not be loved, but it’s still largely trusted by its local community.
If everyday life continues to speed up and becomes more virtual and less personal then ‘glocal’ organizations like the post office can bring a certain level of calm – even humanity – to communications. Moreover, the more that communications shift to digital formats and the easier it becomes to send communications without an intermediary the more we will value the cut-through of highly tactile nature of paper based communications.
And let’s not forget either that the predicted death of post offices is dependent upon a number of critical assumptions, all of which can easily be challenged. For example, it is widely assumed that the shift to digital communications is unstoppable. This is indeed the most likely scenario. But it is possible to imagine other worlds where things start to move in the opposite direction.
What if, for example, spam, data security or identity theft become such a problem that people revert to the security of paper based communication and physical delivery for important things? What if the use of email was proven to be more damaging to the environment than paper or what if the sheer volume of internet traffic meant that speeds slow down to the point where people stop using it? Or what if government concerns over censorship mean that a free global internet is eventually replaced by a series of highly regulated national intranets?
Whatever happens nothing is likely to happen overnight, so in the meantime here are a five ways to deliver a first class postal service.
1. Emphasise that post offices are part of the local community and forge relationships with other local community providers (e.g. public libraries), even sharing physical spaces with some to reduce costs.
2. Post offices need to grow non-mail revenues, especially insurance & financial services.
3. Make post offices physical fronts for e-services and provide print on demand for all government forms. Consider relocating some of the services relating to passports, driving licences, car registration and income tax into larger post offices.
4. Turn post offices into business support centres for SMEs and sell a range of office related products ranging from stationery to computer equipment.
5. Instead of focussing on ‘sending services’ why not create revenue streams relating to ‘receiving services’? For example, extend the idea of the PO Box to larger boxes or lockers where online goods can be received and stored. These boxes could even be chilled for food delivery.