Sunday, March 06, 2005

Hymn to the postal service

In America, it's a cliché for people to joke about the alleged poor quality of the postal service. After living in Britain for five years, I have no idea why. If Americans spent a few months being served by Royal Mail, they would never complain about USPS again.

In my 25 years in America, I can recall having the following problems with my mail delivery:


  • A few times, the cover of a magazine got shredded when the mail carrier forced it into the mailbox. (Most Americans have a mailbox outside their house, instead of a mail slot in their door).
  • Very occasionally I got some of the neighbours' post in my box, or they got mine in theirs. This probably happened fewer than ten times.

And that's it. In addition, the U.S. post office has a few annoying characteristics:

  • It doesn't guarantee to deliver domestic mail within a particular time -- how long your letter takes to reach its destination depends on how far away you send it, how busy the post office is, etc.
  • There are also no guarantees about what time of day your post will be delivered. Often you can guess, but the time can change if you get a new mail carrier. My parents get their post anytime between 11 and 4.
  • The post isn't delivered on minor federal holidays that aren't days off for most people.
  • The USPS charges extra to deliver envelopes that are a funny shape.

Compare this with the experience I've had since moving to Britain:

  • Items of post constantly go missing. We get two weekly magazines and one biweekly, and at least one of them is sure to vanish at least once every couple of months. Other things that have got lost include airline tickets, a renewed lease for our flat, and credit cards. (Fortunately, the last only went next door and the neighbours were honest enough to return them).
  • The envelope from the Home Office containing my passport and permanent visa, which I was supposed to sign for personally, was instead dumped through our door with the rest of the post.
  • At our old flat, the postman routinely left parcels outside to be rained on and/or nicked, and to attract burglars. When we left a note asking him not to do this, he scrawled 'MAKE BIGGER LETTER BOX.'
  • Another postman always left a note and returned the parcel to the depot without bothering to check whether we were home to receive it or not. This seems to be a widespread practice, even though postmen are supposed to ring the doorbell first.
  • We always have to ask at least twice to get parcels redelivered, since they seem to ignore the first request. Chris once left work early to collect a parcel that was supposed to be redelivered to our local post office, only to find it wasn't there. He rang the helpline to be told that the parcel was 'too big for a branch post office' and he would have to have it delivered somewhere else.
  • About once a week we get mail clearly marked with our neighbours' address.
  • We have received mail for previous residents, marked it 'Not at this address' and returned it -- only to have it delivered again a few days later.
  • Most recently, my mother sent Chris a parcel via Amazon. Although it was correctly addressed, Royal Mail returned it as undeliverable. We can only assume that the postman either put a note through the wrong door or didn't bother to leave one at all.

If you ring Royal Mail's helpline, things only get worse. I can't compare it with the American helpline because I never had cause to ring the latter, but here are some of the delights the British version has to offer:

  • Being told that we can't reasonably expect our mail to be delivered properly because we live in a flat above a shop.
  • Being told that it's no wonder mail gets delivered to the wrong address, when there are all those houses around us whose numbers differ from ours by just one digit.
  • Being told that they can't take the problem up with the person who's causing it (i.e., the mail carrier who can't match the number on the envelope with the number on the door) but can only report it to the local sorting office and hope the information trickles down to the right person eventually.
  • If you want to get a parcel redelivered, you have to talk to an automated system that either doesn't understand your accent, doesn't recognise your address or claims your local post office doesn't exist.
  • Talking to a real person doesn't get you much further, as the call centre is clearly not outsourced to India and is staffed by surly young Britons who took elocution lessons from Ali G.

Other irritating things about Royal Mail are:

  • It's pointlessly broken up into three branches -- Royal Mail itself (formerly Consignia), Parcelforce and Post Offices Ltd -- none of which is capable of talking to the others.
  • Their website makes you register a username and password to look up postcodes, even though these are public information and it's in Royal Mail's own interest for you to use the correct one.
  • However much I scheme or plead, I can never persuade post office clerks to sell me a whole sheet of air mail stamps so I can send letters to America without having to queue up at the post office each time.
  • Their postmarks carry advertising.
  • Their stamps are boring.

Thank heaven for e-mail.

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