Consumer watchdog sets out moves needed to make post office changes work better for customers
Consumer Focus Scotland is calling for improvements to the new Post Office Local (PO Local) model, if it is to work better for consumers. The call comes as a new report from the watchdog – ‘Open all hours’ – shows that while the new model has potential benefits, there are unresolved problems which need to be addressed, if consumers are to get the full benefits which major changes to the UK’s post office network can deliver.
From summer 2012, the Post Office’s Network Transformation will see one in five sub-post offices convert to the PO Local model as part of the largest set of planned changes in the Post Office’s history. Most sub-post offices currently operate as part of a small shop, but have a separate post office counter with dedicated staff. The Locals model will see post office services delivered by trained shop staff from the main counter of retail outlets such as convenience stores or petrol stations, rather than from a separate dedicated post office area.
Many post offices are economically unsustainable, so Consumer Focus Scotland recognises a new approach is needed. With around 2,000 PO Local conversions, these changes provide a major opportunity for improvements. The watchdog’s report shows that PO Locals offers many positives for customers with greater convenience and extended opening hours, which were welcomed by the vast majority of consumers (eight out of ten of those surveyed).1 However, based on customer research and mystery shopping at 105 branches across the UK currently trialling the model, the research also shows a number of areas which must be addressed if the new model is to meet consumers’ needs and deliver a consistent and reliable service.
The current trials are intended to identify areas which need attention as the Locals model develops and Consumer Focus has carried out this research to assist Post Office Limited in this endeavour and we recognise that it is taking action on some our findings. We will continue to monitor and report to consumers on its actions.
Key findings showed improvements are needed in PO Locals on:
Advice – Mystery shopping showed widespread evidence of inconsistent, and often inaccurate, product and pricing advice.2 For example, second class postage was sold correctly in only one in five visits3; large or heavy parcels were refused in a quarter of cases; and in two-thirds of cases, researchers were sold Special Delivery without staff asking the questions necessary to determine if it was the most suitable and suitably priced product.4
Product availability – More than one in six customers (17 per cent) were told they couldn’t access a service which actually should have been available.5 Not every consumer expected to access all post office services at their PO Local outlet. However, for a significant number of those surveyed, some of the services they said they needed and which are currently available across the network, wouldn’t be available at most PO Locals. These include Local Collect services (52 per cent).6 Although 75 per cent of customers said their perception of the knowledge of counter assistants was good, this mystery shopping show there appears to be a significant problem.
Privacy – Over a third of users (34 per cent) found the privacy available in a PO Local to be poor. Of all Locals users asked, 41 per cent said the privacy was worse than in sub-post offices. Almost one in five (19 per cent) also said they were reluctant, because of concerns over the perceived unreliability of staff, to undertake high-value, personal or confidential transactions at PO Locals.
Consistency of service – The report outlines problems with the reliability of the service at many branches, such as trained staff being unavailable or the demands of the associated business taking priority. Mystery shoppers also reported that PO Locals were not always open when scheduled, particularly during extended hours.
Cash withdrawals – The research also found some PO Locals were capping the cash or benefits a consumer can withdraw, or were unable to make any cash payments. In branches that do not receive cash supplies from Post Office Limited (POL), mystery shoppers were unable to withdraw cash in 10 per cent of visits (approximately 33 per cent of the current Locals pilots operate without cash supplies from POL – all sub post-offices receive cash supplies from POL). This poses a potential risk for older and vulnerable consumers, who rely on post offices to access their cash.
Trisha McAuley, Deputy Director of Consumer Focus Scotland, said:
‘Changes are needed to put the post office network on a more sustainable financial footing. Communities in Scotland rely on their local post office, so everything possible must be done to make sure that all elements of Post Office Locals are working well for customers, given the planned national roll out of such major changes. This report shows a mixed picture and that further work is needed to make sure the millions of customers who will be affected receive a good quality and reliable service.
‘Some aspects of the new Locals model could be great news for consumers. Everyone will welcome longer opening hours, but they would also expect most core post office services to be available. With more people buying goods off the internet, it would make so much sense to be able to pick up an undelivered parcel from a PO Local outside usual working hours. That many Locals don’t offer this service is the sort of issue Post Office Limited should focus on, to make this programme the success we all want it to be.
‘We want Post Office Locals to work well. Our concern is that Post Office Limited will be missing a golden opportunity if it does not get the PO Local model right and we hope our findings will help them in this respect. We don’t want to see shortcomings we’ve picked up in pilot branches being replicated across two thousand PO Locals in the future. We do however want to see the advantages and benefits such as convenience and longer opening hours that our research has also identified.’
To improve the PO Local model for consumers, Consumer Focus Scotland wants to see measures including:
- Post Office Limited (POL) to raise the quality of advice given to customers – including an overhaul of staff training, stricter monitoring, support and compliance processes.
- POL to offer a core menu of services in every PO Local branch which is well-communicated to consumers. This should include products consumers want to access which are not currently offered through PO Locals, such as paying paper-based bills, making cash deposits and withdrawals from all accounts, and a full range of parcel services. The Local Collect service7 could build on the convenience of extended opening hours. Given the growth in the parcels market, and reduction in the number of delivery offices as part of Royal Mail’s modernisation programme, expanding parcel services available at PO Locals presents an important opportunity.
- POL to address consumer concerns over privacy, the open plan counter and the knock-on impact on confidentiality when undertaking transactions.
- POL must offer a reliable service through PO Locals, comparable with other post office models. Longer opening hours are strongly welcomed by consumers and POL must capitalise fully on this key strength. Breaks in the service due to unavailability of trained staff, irregular opening hours, and conflicting business demands, must be tackled. Longer opening hours must also be better communicated in-branch – in over a quarter (29 per cent) of mystery shopping visits opening hours were not seen displayed.
- The arrangements for supplying PO Locals with cash must be reviewed, and if necessary, changed.
Notes to editors:
- Consumer Focus commissioned GfK to undertake two research projects in the 105 locations where PO Locals have been piloted. This included a face-to-face survey of 1,030 adults living in the catchment areas of these 105 branches. Six focus groups were held also across the UK. As part of the research, a mystery shopping exercise was undertaken with 362 visits undertaken (up to four visits to each of the 105 PO Local branches). Mystery shoppers were allocated two out of a total of five scenarios designed to test the quality of product and pricing advice they received – 724 scenarios were tested overall. Fieldwork was carried out in January and February 2012.
- Following the Government’s consumer advocacy reforms, Consumer Focus will continue to act in the consumer interest across a wide-range of sectors until our general advocacy role passes to Citizens Advice in April 2013. As part of the reforms, Consumer Focus will establish a new unit to identify and represent consumers’ interests in complex, regulated sectors, including energy and postal issues and, in Scotland, water.
- In the research, 81 per cent of users and 79 per cent of non-users said that extended opening hours at PO Locals would be useful to them. Over three-quarters (77 per cent) had visited a PO Local during extended opening hours. One in seven (15 per cent) said they now use the PO Local primarily during extended opening hours. Use of PO Locals during extended opening hours is higher among those in full-time work (84 per cent).
- As part of the mystery shopping exercise, at each branch the researchers completed two of five scenarios to assess the quality of pricing and product advice of core PO Local products and services. The scenarios assessed were: posting a large letter; posting an item that should be sent by Special Delivery; posting a large parcel (over 6kg); enquiring about the availability of travel money and making a cash withdrawal. Visits were spread across the opening hours of PO Locals and in all 724 scenarios were undertaken across 105 pilot PO Local branches.
- Consumer Focus mystery shoppers were correctly sold postage for a Second Class Large Letter in just 21 per cent of PO Local visits – this dropped to 15 per cent during extended opening hours. The scenario was to send a large, flat A4 envelope, with counter staff told the item was not urgent – the correct advice would have a second class large letter stamp (58 pence when research was conducted). Two-thirds of mystery shoppers were advised to buy more expensive postage than they needed and five per cent were actually charged less than they should have been. Previous research conducted by the watchdog found that in High Street, Crown and franchised branches, mystery shoppers were told the correct postage for a First and Second Class large letter in 99 per cent of cases.
- Post Office staff should ask when an item needs to arrive, its contents and value, before they can correctly identify whether Special Delivery is the right product to meet the customers’ needs. Although Special Delivery was the right product for this scenario, there is a significant price difference if the wrong product is sold – Special Delivery is now £5.90 (£5.45 when the research was conducted, before the recent price rises.) In comparison, a first class stamp is 60p (46p before the recent price rises.
- Services which customers could not access included: parcels over 6kg and core services such as Special Delivery, cash withdrawals and electronic bill payments.
- Services not offered through PO Locals, but users say they would need to use at their post office branch
|Percentage of consumers who say they would need to use the following services at their post office||Available at all
non- PO Locals post offices, including sub post offices
|Available at larger post offices|
|Payment of car tax||52||-|
|Passport or driving licence applications||42||-|
|Cash withdrawal or deposit
(using passbook or paper slip)
|Pay a paper-based bill||21||-|
|On demand foreign currency||16||-|
|International parcels over 5kg||15||-|
Base: all users (807)
PO Locals offer a core range of post office services. They typically will not offer the above services. Most of these services are available in all 11,600 post offices, including sub-post offices. The exceptions are car tax payments, on demand currency, and DVLA or passport applications – which are only available in larger post offices – between 2,500 and 4,500 branches depending on the service.
Please note – a small number of Locals do provide the Local Collect service and it is not a service precluded from the model. Cash withdrawals or deposit can be made if a bank card is used but not without a bank card, e.g. a passbook could not be used. Paper-bill payments can also be processed if there is a bar code on the bill.
The Local Collect service gives customers the option to pay a small fee for undelivered parcels or signed for mail to be redelivered to their local Post Office, rather than having to collect this from a delivery office or wait in for redelivery at home. As most PO Locals will offer extended opening hours having a parcel delivered to a local branch could provide a more convenient option for consumers to pick up undelivered mail.