A report published today by Consumer Focus highlights people’s experiences of the new Post Office Local (PO Local) scheme which could see around 2,000 traditional sub-post offices replaced.1
The report ‘Local but limited?’ argues that while the PO Local model offers benefits, significant changes are still needed to make sure it works for customers and can help deliver a long-term future for the post office network. The significant shift to PO Locals could see up to one in five dedicated sub-post offices close. Their services would be offered instead through retail outlets such as convenience stores, petrol stations, and possibly supermarkets. Consumers benefit from longer opening hours but these outlets typically offer fewer post office services. Post office services are delivered by shop staff from the main store counter, rather than a separate post office area with dedicated post office employees.
This radical shift in how post office services are delivered prompted the consumer watchdog to undertake research asking customers how satisfied they were with the service in areas where PO Locals are being piloted2. It reveals that the majority of consumers welcome the convenience and extended opening hours provided by PO Locals, especially in evenings and weekends.3 However, the report also raises a number of major changes which Consumer Focus believes must be implemented before PO Locals can be rolled out further.
Key areas of concern highlighted by the research include:
- Limited services available – Just over half of all PO Locals users (53 per cent) have had to use an alternative post office because their PO Local did not offer the product or service they wanted. PO Locals offers core services but not, for example, DVLA or passport services, bill payment or banking transactions or international mail weighing over 5kg. Some branches also do not appear to offer full parcel services even though they are supposed to.
- Privacy – 43 per cent of customers say the privacy available is poor, especially for banking or financial transactions.
- Quality of service – 61 per cent of customers said their overall experience was good but a large proportion of 38 per cent said it was average or poor (22 per cent said average and 16 per cent poor). Worryingly, the research highlights problems in making cash and benefit withdrawals. Some consumers reported cash and benefit withdrawals being capped to prevent branches running out of money. Another concern was breaks in service where a core member of staff was unavailable and other staff members didn’t have the experience or training to deal with the customer’s enquiry.
- Levels of staff knowledge and expertise – 28 per cent of users feel staff experience and knowledge is average or poor
- Poor layout - 38 per cent of service users rated the space and layout of PO Locals as average or poor.
Andy Burrows, post office expert at Consumer Focus said:
‘Before Post Office Locals are rolled-out nationwide, it is vital that the Post Office delivers a model that meets its customer’s needs, both now and in the future. Our research highlights some plus points but also many warning lights which must be urgently addressed. This is a massive shift away from traditional sub-post offices and millions of customers shouldn‘t be asked to sacrifice quality of service for the sake of convenience.
‘We recognise that the Post Office must change if it is to be successful in the future. PO Locals have the potential to modernise the network, but the design and implementation must be absolutely right for their customers. To make the network sustainable they must also be able to benefit from future revenue streams including banking transactions and the lucrative market for parcel drop-off and collection, which is being fuelled by online shopping.’
The UK Government has announced the bulk of the PO Local rollout will take place from 2014 and that it envisages PO Locals becoming the mainstay of the post office network over time. Consumer Focus believes that this programme must be implemented correctly if it is to work for consumers. Disappointingly only half of customers surveyed thought the product range offered by their PO Local was good. If PO Locals do not offer the services customers need, consumers may not use them and could struggle to access the services they need. Consumer Focus believes this could result in remaining post offices being ‘swamped’ by greater numbers of people, potentially resulting in poorer customer service and bigger queues, for example.
To ensure the PO Local model meets the needs of its customers, Consumer Focus is calling on Post Office Limited to:
- Ensure the full range of products and services are consistently and reliably available. Urgent measures should be introduced to tackle capping of cash withdrawals, which particularly affects vulnerable consumers on pensions or benefits who rely on making withdrawals using their Post Office Card Account.
- To urgently address the lack of privacy in PO Locals, especially for financial or benefit transactions. These concerns are particularly important given the many vulnerable customers who access their cash and benefits at the Post Office and the UK Government’s push for it to offer current accounts and become a ‘neighbourhood bank’ in the future.
- Provide better staff training, so transactions and queries can be dealt with effectively by any member of staff expected to play a role in offering post office services.
- Give best practice guidelines for operators on layout including the location of the counter. Space restrictions could have an impact on privacy, queuing and customer service and the PO Local’s ability to handle larger packets and parcels, for example.
- Ensure that PO Locals can exploit future revenue streams including banking services; the extension of UK Government services and being able to send and collect parcels and packages.
- Commit to a full-scale review of PO Locals and their customers’ experiences; and to work with Consumer Focus and other bodies to demonstrate improvements in the PO Locals model before any large scale roll out takes place.
Notes to editors:
A link to the ‘Local but Limited?’ report is here:
Consumer Focus is the independent champion for consumers in the UK. Consumer Focus gives a strong voice for consumers on the issues that matter to them and works to secure a fair deal on their behalf. We operate across the whole of the economy, persuading businesses, public services and policy makers to put consumers at the heart of what they do.
Post Office Limited is currently running a pilot scheme of the PO Local model. POL research shows PO Local pilots have been positively received. However, Consumer Focus urges some caution over these findings as often the pilot is taking place in areas where the previous post office had been closed for an extended period or where there was no previous post office. The watchdog believes customers are likely to be more welcoming if the choice was between a PO Local or no post office at all.
- Department of Business, Innovation & Skills ‘Securing the Post Office Network in the Digital Age’ November 2010
- Consumer Focus commissioned Ipsos MORI to undertake quantitative and qualitative research in 45 locations where PO Locals have been piloted. The research included a face-to-face survey with 1,003 adults, with the sample drawn from residents living in the catchment areas for PO Local branches which had been open for a minimum of three months. The sample included both users (783) and non-users (219) of the PO Local, with all being users of Post Office services generally. In addition six focus groups were held. All fieldwork was carried out in September and October 2010.
- Ninety one per cent of consumers surveyed said the convenience of their PO Local premises is fairly or very good and three-quarters felt longer opening hours would be useful for them.