Monday, 28 July 2008

Return to Sender

I wrote this in June 2006. Since then with the Royal Mail switching to charging by size where A4 costs more than DL or you pay more for things thicker than 5mm, the problem has only got worse.

Return to Sender

By Nat Bocking

Last Christmas, along with the cards and catalogues falling on the doormat, millions of people in Britain got notices that letters and cards for them were being held by the Royal Mail because the sender did not affix sufficient postage or forgot the stamp entirely. Those lucky people had to curtail Christmas shopping to queue at the sorting office, pay an £1 surcharge, plus the missing postage, just to collect their mail. Either that, or take a gamble that the letter wasn't the only notification of great expectations and put it out of their mind.

According to spokesman James Eadie, of the 500 million pieces of mail a week the Royal Mail handles, nearly 350,000 items have insufficient postage. This isn't totally preventable but the effect that it has can be changed.

For bulk mailers who have contracts with the Royal Mail, any item with insufficient postage is returned straight back to them preventing one stupid mistake clogging the postal system. But the ordinary person who forgets a stamp will usually unknowingly inconvenience the recipient.

The cost to society of unstamped mail is writer's cramp for postal workers trying to reclaim 13.4 million pounds of postage owed to the Royal Mail as well as immeasurable amounts of people's time and the transport miles wasted collecting or redelivering the letters. It seems like another of life's petty nuisances we can do without. Surely there is a way can prevent it?

The system as it stands is as follows; The Royal Mail holds the letter with postage due until they have collected the money. A demand for £1 plus postage is sent to the addressee. If they refuse, the letter goes back to the sender (if known) where the Royal Mail tries to ransom it again. By the time this has happened, it's possible the sender has realised that the letter went astray and has contacted the recipient already. It's not surprising then that 50% of insufficient postage letters are abandoned to the Royal Mail and have to be disposed of like litter. This adds up to nearly 7 million pounds in lost revenue for the Royal Mail that has, of course, to be borne by the other customers. Recognising the inconvenience of the present system, the Royal Mail had trialled in Hull, Liverpool and Colchester amongst other places, an honesty scheme where the letter is delivered with a card to which you affix stamps for the postage and surcharge due. Slightly more humane perhaps, but not essentially that different from present practice.

Why doesn't the Royal Mail just send the letter back first?

There are several reasons why the burden of insufficient postage first falls on the recipient and not the sender. James Eadie says the Royal Mail tries to strike a balance between customer service, practicality and protecting their revenue. Their primary mission is to "unite the recipient with their mail." The mail system is designed to move letters forward and it takes a lot of extra handling to send something back. Also, "people count on their mail getting there" he adds. Letters without stamps are delivered to the recipient first usually because the return address isn't known, so it simply can't be returned without opening it for clues.

It takes a remarkable organisation to handle the 82 million pieces of mail we send each day, 6 days a week. The machine that sorts your letters handles 30,000 letters an hour but it still relies on the power of 'wetware' (what programmers call the human brain) to read your handwriting. However 11.5 million pieces of mail a day are sent without valid postcodes. Operators pull out the mail, look up the address and add or correct the postcode with infra-red ink. Letters without any valid address or sender go to the National Return Letter Centre in Belfast. Its head, Ray Kennedy, is St. Peter to the 72 million letters a year which his workforce of 300 open for clues to their destiny. From here opened letters are either sent on to the recipient, returned to the sender or held for three months in case of a claimant and then destroyed. The NLRC has returned many thousands of treasured items lost in the post to their owners and it returns £175 million in undeliverable cheques back to banks every year but it costs the Royal Mail and so ultimately us, 10 million pounds a year. On a cost return basis, charging the recipient is the most successful option.

Why do we have this problem anyway?

With Christmas cards, the culprits are many. Once a year we all become bulk mailers and try to cope with a mountain of cards, envelopes and address data (sometimes incomplete) to send out our cards. There is time pressure, we always leave it too late. Some, desperate to avoid doing all this by hand, think computers can help but any time saved is quickly used up in screaming at the computer, printer and stationer’s sales assistants, as anyone who's tried to print out a database onto labels will testify. If the glue is not faulty and stamps aren't dropping off in transit, we are probably all guilty of once or twice in our lives omitting postage, either totally or, even more likely, partially if we haven't weighed the letter properly or understood the postage chart.

What can we do about it?

Thanks to Postman Pat, the fact that letters need stamps is common knowledge to every three year old. Any more public education about stamps and postcodes would surely be a waste of money. In schools children are encouraged to send letters to stimulate writing and socialising and the Royal Mail even supplies materials for role play. Consistently forgetting stamps is probably a warning that you have a clinical condition but how would you ever know unless you kept getting letters back? Between friends and family, good manners ensure that the recipient of an unstamped letter who is out of pocket probably does not mention it during the season of goodwill.

The more you think about it, the less sense this blame-the-victim system makes. Surely the Royal Mail should ask the sender for the full postage amount before delivering the package or letter. Why does this not happen?

Ask Elvis. The reason he got his letter back the very next day was because including your own address in the top left hand corner is so widespread in the USA that all American office software has a return address field when printing envelopes. The same habit is uncommon in Britain. The Royal Mail encourages us to do it in all its literature but has never promoted doing so with anything like the same insistence as the postcode. Statistics are hard to come by but, out of the 300,000 items containing cheques returned by the Royal Mail, more than two out of three [250,000] have no return address on the envelope.

The Royal Mail has researched other countries' postal regulations and found that nowhere in the EU is the return address compulsory. Only in Australia is it compulsory, and for bulk mailing only. According to Ray Kennedy, "we do not have a culture of putting our return address on the outside of our mail." This "culture" might stem from a belief in the infallibility of a postage stamp, a British invention, [1837 Rowland Hill] that can deliver a letter over a 100 years later. In February 2001 a postcard was delivered to Aberdeen after being posted from Queensland, Australia, in 1889!

Is postal "culture" inviolate? Surely, if we really want to change, we can. Until the 1840's, the receiver paid for letters. A return address, directing mail back to the sender, would save us all the headache of collecting unstamped mail from the sorting office. It would also save the millions of pounds lost in the present system. Even if the Royal Mail didn't want to adopt the "Return to Sender" habit, the return address would enable those being surcharged for insufficient postage to determine who the letter is from before paying for it and it gives them the real option of refusal. The orphan mail going to the National Return Letter Service would fall dramatically. If this practice had the same 80% compliance as the postcode does, the Royal Mail might reconsider their charging of recipients and automatically return to sender.

Another benefit of return addresses exists while we live under the threat of terrorism. The Royal Mail already has the means of checking the recipient's postal address and, if the situation warranted it, they could also check the sender's address to verify its validity. Perhaps we'd all feel a little bit more comfortable if we knew our post was coming from a valid address. It would be unwise to rely on the Royal Mail to guarantee our security but the requirement for a return address would be another defence and ensure that the recipient handled unfamiliar mail carefully. Postscript: you now can't send any item to Canada from the UK without a return address on the envelope.

As each unique postcode is relevant to about 12 homes or one city office building, it doesn't mean Big Brother can snoop in our mail (they can do that already if they have to) however it would also assist the Royal Mail in tracking usage patterns and so better match services to requirements. Marketers and service providers could find out to street level accuracy what locations communicate with each other the most, revealing trends about their competitors goods and services as much as their own and they would pay handsomely for such data.

Changing a nation's habits like smoking or drink-driving is a mammoth undertaking and such a minor issue is unlikely to attract Government intervention but any effort might be good value for money. Last July the fee for what the Royal Mail calls 'Revenue Protection' was increased from 50 to 80 pence. A response from the Royal Mail's customer service centre agreed there is a need for public education. It said that "return addressing was taught in schools for many years, but in recent times, it does not seem to happen. We cannot force people to put a return address on mail but agree it would assist us as much as our customers."

Changing our posting habits might spread ripples of goodwill throughout society in unexpected ways. Many people have relatives, friends, colleagues, ex-partners or even children they only contact at Christmas and through a lack of contact, misunderstandings get magnified and feelings can get hurt in the emotional minefield of the holidays. By giving a return address, the sender might find out that the intended recipient had moved or altered circumstances, rather than thinking that they were being ignored. Just after Christmas is a peak time for the emotional support charity Samaritans and the relationship counsellors Relate. Gillian Munro, a spokesperson for Relate says "our counsellors know that keeping lines of communication open, especially at stressful times like Christmas, is a key way for couples and families to look after their relationships." But on a less emotional level, getting a letter returned to you is, as marketing people say, a great way to clean up your data.

Many stationery shops sell personalised self-stick address labels on sheets or rolls. Buying them could save you the £5 annual registration fee to Friends Reunited later. The staff of Mini-Label, such a printing firm, have a vested interest in promoting the habit but speaking collectively they said "we are also fellow sufferers of the charging policy and would support any publicity that makes forgetting a stamp punishable by a thousand paper cuts. The return address label should be obligatory." Before anyone grumbles about having to buy personalised labels, in the USA they are popular as a free gift in charity mailshots, and clutter up your desk drawers unless you use them. It makes perfect sense as the charity has bought your name and address data anyway. If this was adopted by UK charities, ensuring a regular supply might discourage people opting out of junk mail using the Mailing Preference Service.

The only way we'll really know such a system will work is to try it. The US Post Office protects their revenue by sending unstamped mail straight back to the sender. They do, however, charge for this. Until they started doing so, it was open to fraud. Many years ago a trick of struggling Hollywood screenwriters was to reverse the sender and recipient on their envelopes to submit weighty manuscripts for free. The present Royal Mail system prevents such enterprise but it doesn't deter abusers like Dr James Forster, the Manfield poison pen author or prevent vulnerable people from harassment by repeated mailings of bogus unstamped letters.

So, by next holiday season, get into the habit of including your own address on the envelope. Soon you can take a gamble on your next piece of unstamped mail and invest in something with a better "return".


© Nat Bocking

1 comment:

  1. we usually order all of our address labels from we use to order from vista prin but they ended up charging our credit card monthly fees and kept getting junk email and postal mail