net.wars: The vanishing Post Office of Sandycombe Road, Kew

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 16 January 2004

It went like this. One Thursday last November, with no warning, a big, red van with gold lettering on the side drove up and took away our Post Office. Apparently it never could get the hang of Thursdays.

Wendy M Grossman

We've been trying to get it back ever since. Royal Mail has been trying to get it back ever since. They really are trying really hard, they tell me, it's just that it's become hard to find subpostmasters any more. This is actually not surprising. The biggest income source for subpostmasters was benefits payments, which are gradually being electronified. As the old pension books get phased out, subpostmasters' income drops. At the same time, certainly in Kew and probably lots of other places, rates and rent keep going up. What's a subpostmaster to do?

A spokesman for the Royal Mail tells me they do all sorts of strange things to keep themselves alive. Many run other businesses in part of their premises, as ours does. Did. Which tense? The newsagent half of our Post Office is still functioning in front of dark windows and an empty space where a queue of people ought to be. In Scottish villages, it's apparently popular for the Post Offices to take over shut-down police stations and share with the odd bobby. One rural Post Office has a sideline in beauty products.

"We're much more flexible now," said my spokesman, "because we're looking to maintain our rural network, which we subsidise." Wouldn't you think some of them would put in Internet cafes?

But the immediate problem is buying stamps. The Royal Mail Web site sells both collectible and ordinary stamps, albeit agonisingly slowly. It's not their fault that I have a violent animus against idiot stamps - that is, those non-denominated self-stick jobs. I know the advantages; I still hate them.

Then I discover Smart Stamp: the Royal Mail, with help from Lockheed is getting into the e-stamp business. You use their software to print your own stamps on envelopes or labels, and you choose how much to pre-pay for the postage. You can add your own logo, as the Royal Mail proudly tells you, and I bet people will, although one might ask why. In these anthrax-in-the-post times, there's no point in making your mail look "professional" when it's opened and fumigated by gremlins in the mail room and wheeled naked on a cart to its recipient.

There is one fly in this snail trail. You have to pay to subscribe to the service, either £4.99 a month (minimum three months) or £49.99 a year. My instinct: too expensive. Subscription should be free, you pay for the postage, and ante up fees for cute extras like logos, postal scales, stationery, and customization. Royal Mail says the subscription fee is to pay for the software and should compare favourably for small businesses to the cost of postage meters. Plus, although they don't expect digital stamps to become a big revenue stream, they do want it to be profitable. Unlike, the spokesman said frankly, many of their other lines.

It all depends whether you think of this as a consumer or business service. For consumers, yet again the digital era shifts the costs of distribution and manufacture (counter staff, printing, distribution, inventory management, security) onto consumers and charges us for the privilege. But if you're a business, time saved is worth money. A straw poll on conferencing system CIX reflects this split, running three to one in favour of the consumer view. Royal Mail is aiming the service at businesses, but without, apparently, considering the likelihood that they could have a far larger market at their disposal if they nixed the subscription fee and sold value-added services. Such as, for example, add-ons to the software that would allow it to work with a greater range of address books. One CIX user pointed out that the software does not support databases, spreadsheets, or even bog-standard CSV files, limiting its usefulness for exactly the kind of mail-merging user Royal Mail ought to want.

There are lots of other questions. What happens when the envelope you're printing your stamp on gets munged by the printer? What if you have an inkjet and take the letters to the postbox in the rain and the ink runs? Just like postage meters, you can get credit for those. Royal Mail will, however, refuse to carry logos it deems offensive. Like, you know, anything pornographic, or the Queen's face with a mustache. Budding stamp artists take note.

What if some enterprising user photocopies the stamp he's printed and reuses it? The stamps are dated so you must use them the day they're generated, but it's not hard to imagine little stamp-sharing networks where the stamps are scanned and the files shared using ordinary P2P. And if the system can tell whether a stamp's been used elsewhere, doesn't that suggest rather a lot of added traceability to mail we think of as anonymous? These questions to be answered later.

They might be covered in the FAQ. But I'll never know because it refuses to load from the Royal Mail site. (And, guys, lose the stupid Flash demo that doesn't tell you anything.)

And then the killer question: what if using digital stamps means business drops so low my Post Office never comes back?

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).