Royal Mail gears up for its busiest week

Posties sorting mail
Image caption Postmen and postwomen are handling fewer letters but more parcels than in the past

With more than a billion items to deliver across the country this Christmas, it is perhaps not surprising that the occasional bit of tension creeps in at Royal Mail delivery offices towards the end of the night shift.

Despite the time of day, any such moments at the Stockport Delivery Office are more than matched by the occasional singing along to the latest chart hits playing over the airwaves, and even the odd threat to dance to them.

But with the sorting deadline approaching before all the postmen and women go out on their rounds, the overriding feeling is one of concentration.

It needs to be.

This week is expected to be the Royal Mail's busiest this year. During the same period last year, it delivered about 79 million parcels - almost double the amount it handled during each of the first 11 months of the year.

Modernising mail

Some £5bn worth of mouse-clicking is expected to be done in the first two weeks of this month as our habit of shopping online continues to grow.

But while more time is spent by the singing-and-dancing sorters putting parcels and packages in their place, those in Stockport are now accompanied by the background humming of its recently purchased Mail Processing Unit, putting the letters in the exact same order as the postman or woman's round. Some 75% of Royal Mail's letters are now sorted this way.

Operating director Ady Fielding says investment hasn't just been in the offices, saying "The machines can handle 40,000 items an hour. We invest in machines, but also out on the streets we've got new equipment such as high capacity trolleys and we now have people sharing vans on their rounds"

The unit is a part of a £2bn modernisation undertaken by the Royal Mail over the last few years to try and deal with the changing world of deliveries and keep up with competitors.

It has not been an easy time for the postal service, which has seen the number of items it handles each day fall from 80 million in 2006 to 58 million today.

Moreover, despite all the new machinery, staff costs have actually increased in recent years, according to David Stubbs, an independent postal expert.

Jobs on the line

Image caption Postman Martin Love no longer has time to help people who live along his route

With rising costs and reduced demand for its services, the Royal Mail has been struggling in the past, though operating profits for the six months to 23 September rose to £144m, up from £12m a year earlier, and the company is currently being prepared for sale.

"We're still a couple of years behind on the plans for privatisation," Mr Stubbs says. "The chief executive is still talking about possibly next year, but it may slip until after the next election."

Anyone buying Royal Mail would probably aim to cut cost further, so between 20,000 and 30,000 jobs might be lost, along with further moves from full-time to part-time employment.

But Mr Stubbs says that although the Royal Mail is able to stand on its own two feet at the moment, to attract bidders it needs to be making more money than the £23m it made in the last financial year.

He says that this year's increase in a price of a first class stamp from 46p to 60p should lead to more revenue, but volumes may go down as big customers such as utility providers may try to cut down on the number of bills they send, or turn to alternative operators such as DHL or TNT.

Round routines

Image caption Royal Mail is being prepared for a sale

The changing contents of a postie's bag has meant big changes in the daily routine of the men and women doing the deliveries.

With new machinery come new skills that need to be learnt, while increased efficiencies have meant that old practices of building relationships with the people who live on their rounds are disappearing.

Postman Martin Love has worked for the Royal Mail in Stockport for more than 20 years, and says that although the business has moved on for the better, he no longer has the time to pick up one regular customer's pair of shoes and drop them off at the cobblers, as he once would decades ago, or deliver a packet of cigarettes to a man who could not get out the house to buy them himself.

Despite all the technological changes on the horizon for the deliveries industry, one of the biggest challenges is getting customers, big and small, to change their habits.

As retailers standardise their package size and parcel items more efficiently, it speeds up the sorting process and will help deliver them more quickly, says Mr Fielding.

But despite all the innovation, one of the machine operators, Mark Heathcote, says one change he would like to see is from those who send cards and letters in the first place.

The biggest present he could hope for this Christmas is that we all take the time to lick our envelopes properly to stop flaps of paper slowing the system down.

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