Hugh Pearman: Passing on the postcode

Shortsightedness may see the Post Office left behind, says Hugh Pearman, as electronic communication advances quicker than postal workers can strike

Finally, the Post Office is collapsing. And it has been so swift. In recent memory, the Post Office, Royal Mail, call it what you like apart from Consignia, made handsome profits, freezing the cost of postage for years at a time, taking on extra staff to cope with the surge in direct-mail advertising, generally seeming efficient and benign. Apart from its appalling labour relations, of course.

Yet somehow we separate that out. We hate postal strikes, but love postmen and women, even when all they bring is bad news, bills and junk mail. The red post box at the end of the road is solid, reassuring, and until recently the system it represented was apparently unending. And now? The Post Office seems like the coal industry in the mid-Thatcher era. Still a bulk business, still employing big numbers, still militant, and about to vanish. All we need is Billy Bragg benefit gigs for striking mail workers, and we’ll know the end is nigh.

In the past, I’ve written about the enduring appeal of low-tech. We’re happy with computers, e-mails, mobile phones and in-car satellite navigation systems, but also equally happy with fold-out maps, fountain pens and Victorian-technology cast-iron pillar boxes. But I think I was probably deluding myself. The long-predicted, long-delayed mass move to wholly electronic means of communication has accelerated hugely in the past few months.

Suddenly almost everyone has realised there is now no need to send paper cheques in the post when making payment for anything. It’s quicker and easier to take someone’s bank details and squirt the money down the line instead. They could have done this years ago, but organisations are slow to change, and they had invested in costly remittance print-out systems, so why do anything different?

Well, now they are questioning the old habits. There is no need to send paper of any kind when a huge percentage of your recipients is sitting at a screen checking its e-mails every few minutes. Our lives used to be governed by paper forms that arrived in the post, and which you had to fill out laboriously and put back in the post. Now you get the blank forms on-screen, fill them out laboriously there, and click. And every time you do that, the Post Office has lost two sales.

You can pay your income tax and VAT and your employees’ PAYE from your screen, shuffle money around from account to account without ever having to contact your bank, find and book holidays, buy cars, whatever. While the Post Office is losing a lot of business now, the familiar prediction is that retailers – particularly edge-of-town ones – will soon feel the pinch. The surprising thing is they do not yet seem to be: the malls are packed. This is presumably connected with the bizarre notion that shopping isn’t really shopping, but a form of leisure, a day out. I never understood that, being a bloke. But I do recall the wonderful Biba fashion store in its last 1970s incarnation. Biba was packed with people who were looking, not buying. So Biba crashed, and couldn’t even blame on-line shopping for its demise.

Thus you imagine that the packed malls are increasingly full of people not buying. They see what they like, then go home and order it from some cheaper e-tailer. Some on-line catalogues now offer a ‘virtual model’ that mimics your own measurements so you can, as it were, try things on. It’s a rubbishy gimmick now, but soon it will be for real. And the trend is well established in non-leisure shopping anyway. In common with so many other city-dwellers I don’t drive to Tesco any more – I pay for Tesco to drive the stuff to me. Soon enough they’ll stop building superstores and the existing ones will, I hope, be built over by housing.

This is not necessarily all good. Let’s go back to the dear old Post Office – which of course only really started to take a nosedive when they gave it that useless, confidence-sapping name. Yes, it’s history. Today they’re stopping second deliveries and reducing collections, tomorrow they’ll have packed up altogether and the red pillar boxes will have vanished along with all those obsolete phone kiosks.

A shame, because the pillar box was a necessary totem. It did indeed represent stability, shared values, a caring state. It was a national symbol. With the pillar box there and functioning, anarchy could not prevail. When it’s gone, all it needs is a mega-glitch on the Internet and we’re all left drumming our fingers in the dark, isolated and frightened. Which of course can’t possibly happen. Can it?

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