Going postal

When the Communication Workers Union (CWU) announced members who worked for Royal Mail planned to strike on four different days in August and September it was viewed by many as a minor irritation rather than major disruption.

One of the dates even ended up being cancelled due to the death of the Queen, and the other strike days occurred without a great deal of attention paid to them.

However, in late September the CWU called on Royal Mail members who collect, sort and deliver parcels and letters to take further strike action on one date at the end of last month, three dates in October and one date in November. The union also announced dates for “functional strike action” by members on 15 different days in November and December to cause maximum disruption to the network for a sustained period of time.

If the Royal Mail management team wasn’t taking the union’s threat seriously before, the sustained programme of action spanning the busy months running up to Christmas caught their attention. 

Royal Mail recently fought back by involving ACAS in the dispute over pay, terms and conditions and informed the union that in order to modernise ways of working it would “review or serve notice on a number of historic agreements and policies which are currently being used by the CWU to frustrate transformation”.

With the dispute escalating into a bitter war of words there is no end in sight at the moment and the only certainty is that companies and brands looking to get letters, mailers, magazines, catalogues, parcels, packages and other printed marketing collateral out to customers and consumers over the next couple of months potentially face significant disruption to their plans.

The good news for these organisations that currently find themselves in a bind is there are alternative postal options out there. Although the Royal Mail essentially has a monopoly position when it comes to the delivery of letters and no delivery service provider can compete with the company in terms of its nationwide coverage, when it comes to mailers and parcels there are a number of different operators who can fulfil orders.

Mark Davies, managing director doordrop media at postal delivery company Whistl, says there is a variety of different impacts when a strike happens and the extent of the fallout depends on which sector of the postal industry you use. 

“Any kind of disruption is obviously negative and for those brands that have had campaigns interrupted, that might have geared up call centres for mail to land on a particular day, they’re gonna find some challenges with things not happening as they as they normally should and would,” says Davies.

While those brands and companies looking to send smaller printed items through the post may struggle to find alternatives Davies says Royal Mail is the most vulnerable in the parcel space where there have been lots of new entrants in recent years, driven in part by the rapid rise of e-commerce.

“The danger is if they effectively push customers to trial one of their competitors over a strike period and if that service was pretty good at a price point people can live with and there’s no risk of further disruption, then of course there’s a risk that they won’t transition back and that’s where the Royal Mail could ultimately lose out in the longer run,” says Davies.

Dropping in

Another area where the Royal Mail faces growing competition from existing and new entrants to the market is door drops. During strike dates door drop campaigns may not be so badly impacted because Royal Mail is usually given a window of days to deliver a campaign in and if a strike is taking place on a particular day the delivery date of the campaign can relatively easily be shifted to another day or split over several days within that window. 

Like parcels, door drops has been a rapidly growing area over the last few years thanks to the pandemic, which has turbocharged growth of e-commerce businesses. 

“We’ve got a whole host of brands who are reaching audiences at home, many of whom are spending more time at home because of working from home,” says Davies. “So we are definitely seeing some growth trends coming through which perhaps seem counterintuitive in an evermore digital age, but it’s because the campaign’s, when they’re counted, are delivering, they’re giving better results then digital marketing in a lot of cases.”

The numbers support Davies’ assertion. According to figures from the Direct Marketing Association 80% of the top advertisers in the UK use door drop media to advertise their businesses. Rob Henry, managing director at door drop specialists Leaflet Drop Marketing, also points out that a recent survey undertaken by MarketReach found door drops remain in the home for six days on average and data from JICMail revealed once this material hits someone’s door mat the average person will interact with it 3.1 times a month, which means one million leaflets could potentially receive more than three million impressions. 

Henry concedes that due to brand awareness the Royal Mail remains the obvious go to solution for door drop campaigns, but he says a growing number of customers are approaching businesses like his who are looking for a more personal service.

“If you’re speaking to the Royal Mail, you’re very much a number whereas we try to work with our clients a bit more closely,” says Henry. “There are other advantages from using us, such as efficiency, which is one of our key strengths. With the Royal Mail you usually have around a three to four week lead time whereas our lead time is half that. We work closely with our print suppliers so you could literally have the stock delivered to us on the Monday and we would have them delivered on the Wednesday, whereas again with the Royal Mail it’s usually 10 working days.”

He adds his company is also more cost-effective than using Royal Mail and equally as important it offers GPS tracking for reporting purposes.

“If you book in a campaign at the end of the campaign when it’s been delivered we will provide you with a GPS tracked report, which basically is a street level report that shows all the streets we have delivered to. So there are quite a few USPs and advantages we try to offer.”

Another alternative door drop provider that has been picking up business from Royal Mail is CWT Distribution. James Wareing, managing director at CWT Distribution, says a number of former customers of Royal Mail have turned to his company after they were let down due to the delivery service’s inflexible approach.

“We’re not quite as rigid as Royal Mail,” says Wareing. “We can move things around and we can accommodate lead times a little bit more freely, with a bit more fluidity.”

Like Leaflet Drop Marketing, CWT Distribution also track deliveries and offers post-distribution analysis. In the company’s “core areas” it also uses live tracking.

“It’s a great way of showing people that you’ve got the teams out there working and it enables you to track posters in real time,” says Wareing. “So if you’ve just given me 100,000 flyers you want delivering in London, I can say ‘these are going out on the 3rd of October, here’s your login details’, and you can just log in to the system and you can see all the vans and the posters in the areas that you’ve booked, and follow them in real time, virtually from the moment they start to the moment they stop.”

As the Royal Mail industrial action is still in its early days, to date alternative providers haven’t seen a flood of new enquiries directly linked to the disruption. Henry says his business has secured some new business over the last couple of months, but he can’t say with any certainty if this is as a direct result of the strike action. 

“August is usually a quiet period for us, but it hasn’t been this time around and September is always busy, but there’s been an influx this year. Whether that’s due to the strikes it’s hard to quantify, but if the strikes continue we would expect to see a huge influx of enquiries from new clients,” he notes. 

It’s a view shared by Wareing, who expects to see an uplift in queries from marketing agencies in particular if the industrial action is prolonged. 

“If you’ve got pre-printed, time-sensitive material, you would expect to start receiving calls from people saying ‘look, we’ve got a problem here, can you help out?’ It hasn’t come yet, so I couldn’t hand on heart say that at the moment, we’ve had a massive influx of calls from people panicking about how they’re going to get their items out, but I would imagine it will come to a certain degree, which obviously is great for us,” says Wareing.

Other routes to market are growing and there is increased competition in the delivery space, which was once dominated by Royal Mail, thanks to the rapid rise of e-commerce. While the long-standing postal delivery operator finds itself increasingly under threat from rivals Whistl’s Davies believes that perversely Royal Mail and the wider market may end up benefitting from the industrial action. 

“This dispute isn’t purely about pay,” he says. “It’s also about productivity terms and conditions, working practices, some of which – arguably – are indefensible in the modern age, and obviously Royal Mail management is pushing that agenda with the unions to get a bit of a quid pro quo: if they’re going to pay them more money, then they also need certain things to change. The potential benefit for the marketplace is this spat could lead to a more productive, stable and sustainable Royal Mail and the industry generally might welcome some improvements and efficiencies in the way that Royal Mail operates.”