Would you mind if your mail was delivered only three days a week?
That’s one option being proposed by watchdog Ofcom to reform the nation’s postal service, over concerns the current operation is outdated and unsustainable.
Royal Mail has also been calling for change itself. The company has for some time questioned the UK’s one-price-goes-anywhere universal postal service – an operation enshrined in law.
So is time running out for this British institution in a digital world?
Posties are currently required to deliver letters six days per week, Monday to Saturday.
The number of letters being posted, however, has halved from 14.3 billion in 2011 to 7.3 billion in 2023.
Parcel deliveries have become more popular – and more profitable – for Royal Mail, which has been a private business for about a decade since it was split from the Post Office.
Karishma McGregor, from Richmond in North Yorkshire, holds the current service in high regard. “I see our postman every morning as I work from home. He does his rounds come wind, rain, sunshine and snow. He’s a great addition to the neighbourhood and the village.”
The 45-year-old thinks reducing the number of delivery days would be a terrible idea, especially for elderly people who rely on letters for things like hospital appointments.
“If you take the Royal Mail service in the entire country, yes, there might be something that needs improvement… but I’ve never had any issues personally with late parcels or mail,” she says.
Lack of service
Despite hiking the price of stamps in recent years, Royal Mail has struggled, posting a £319m loss in the first half of the current financial year.
The pandemic, industrial action and cyber-attacks have all had an impact, while cutting the number of delivery days to three could save £400-650m, Ofcom says.
Andy Crawford in Shaldon, Devon, isn’t sure if the proposed reforms would bring improvement. His village is about one mile from a town with a sorting office, but people have been receiving their post in batches unless there is a parcel being delivered alongside them.
The postman in the area told him staff had been directed to prioritise “more profitable” parcel deliveries, he says.
“What my issue is more than anything else is that we pay for a service which is not being delivered in any shape or form,” he said.
“We are conned into believing putting a first class stamp on a letter will get it there in good time.”
It seems the majority of people agree with Mr Crawford on letters being delivered when they are meant to be, rather than frequency, being the key.
Ofcom research shows nine in 10 people think reliability is important for letter deliveries, compared to 58% for delivery on Saturdays.
Royal Mail is required to deliver 93% of first class post within one working day and 98.5% of second class within three working days.
But in 2022-23, the company delivered only 73.7% of first class and 90.7% of second class mail on time. Its performance has been so poor in recent times that Ofcom imposed a £5.6m fine over missed delivery targets last year.
There is also the question of what the economic impact would be if the six delivery days were cut.
The likes of magazine publishers would be hampered, if say, Saturday post was no more.
Sajeeda Merali, chief executive of the Professional Publishers Association, has warned that the current service must be maintained for a sector worth some £3.74bn to the UK economy.
The greetings card sector, which depends on a lot of people buying cards for birthdays, anniversaries and then sending them via Royal Mail, is also worried.
Wendy Jones-Blackett from Chapel Allerton, near Leeds, specialises in designing and making handmade greeting cards. She says she was “a bit flabbergasted” on hearing Ofcom’s proposals.
She says roughly 50% of all greeting cards are posted, with the other half delivered by hand.
“We rely on Royal Mail,” she says. “If we do lose that six-day-a-week service there is no way it’s not going to affect greeting cards,” she says.
Heidi Early, whose Earlybird Designs business has a shop in London, agrees. “It’s a massive part of our industry,” she says.
“What is happening with this whole Ofcom thing, it all seems a bit backward. People are getting used to delivery seven days a week.”
She explains in the run-up to Christmas she urged customers to send their cards earlier than usual due to the current problems with the postal system.
“We need to do something about this. People will start losing faith in the postal service and if they [cut deliveries], they will start to buy less cards.”
The fears of small businesses can be eased for now, given that the government has said it is not interested in diluting the demands placed on Royal Mail.
Minister for Postal Affairs Kevin Hollinrake has said while there’s a conversation to be had over some reforms, Saturday deliveries are “sacrosanct”, the six-day-a-week service will remain and Royal Mail needs to “up their game”.
This is a roadblock for the company, given any changes to the universal service would require the government and parliament to change the current legislation.
What would the impact be on Royal Mail’s workforce? Will the government want the upheaval of potential job cuts if it did decide to change the universal service obligation rules?
The Communication Workers Union, which represents posties, has also voiced opposition to cutting delivery days, arguing it would impact thousands of jobs.
Rather than cutting days, an alternative option is to reduce the speed of delivery for most letters to within three days. That would save £150m to £650m, Ofcom says, but the regulator said there would still need to be a next-day service available for any urgent letters.
Other countries have already bitten the bullet.
Denmark, went from six to five days in 2016, but two years later cut deliveries to just one day a week. The country has removed its own universal service obligation this year.
Belgium, Norway and Sweden now deliver two and a half days per week. Italy has reduced its five-day service to three days in rural areas.
Royal Mail’s boss Martin Seidenberg is looking at those other countries. “Whilst other countries have grasped the opportunity to change, the UK is being left behind,” he argues.
Ofcom has called for a “national discussion” on Royal Mail’s future.
That debate is well under way, but for many like Karishma McGregor, the daily sight of the postie on their rounds would be greatly missed.
Additional reporting by the BBC’s UGC unit.