For several years now, the Post Office seems to have done everything in its power to prevent you from buying stamps. If your local branch is still open at all, it likely has a queue stretching out of the door to the one counter that isn’t closed for lunch.
Buying stamps from a supermarket is no alternative if you only want to post a single letter; they’re rarely available in books of fewer than ten. But it is – finally – legal to print your own.
Businesses have long been able to do this, if they have a franking machine, but Royal Mail now allows anyone with a PC and a printer – that’s pretty much everyone – to print labels and pre-paid stamps, with no minimum amount and no need to set up an account.
It’s eBay, the service which has done more than anyone to keep the Post Office in business, that has driven this attempt to drag it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Sellers can now print mailing labels to their clients directly from their eBay accounts and settle up using PayPal. In many cases, letters and small parcels can be dropped straight into a postbox.
If you’re sending something unrelated to eBay, you can use the RoyalMail.com website to do more or less the same thing, with options to print on to envelopes, sticky labels or plain paper. You pay no more than the standard counter price – and at more than 12 bob in old money for a regular first class letter, that’s just as well.
It starts to get complicated if you want anything more than the regular service, though. “Signed for” letters and parcels, the modern-day equivalent of Registered Post and Recorded Delivery, require you to queue at the counter to have the consignment weighed and the tracking label scanned. And if you want proof of postage, you can print the requisite form at home but you’ll need it stamped by the counter clerk to make it valid.
There is also confusion over the amount of compensation to which you’re entitled if the Post Office loses, steals or damages your parcel; the information I was given by the clerk at my local counter did not correlate in any way to the small print on the website.
It’s this inability to join the dots between a 19th century service and a modern one, and our traditional British insistence on having the proper paperwork, that undermines the usefulness of the whole thing. The Post Office isn’t the only guilty party, as anyone who has tried to get a Metro travel card, for instance, will attest. But in an age when independent carriers like DHL can get a package from China to Yorkshire in less than 48 hours and deposit it in a secure locker conveniently close to your home, the whole business of clerks with rubber stamps and ink pads seems a curious anachronism.
It’s also telling that the technical bit is the least complicated and off-putting part of the process – you can print your label as many times as you need at no extra cost, and claim your money back if you change your mind. Try doing that at the Post Office counter, as an angry queue snaps at your heels.