Does Postman Pat have a Future?

Tom Rayfield

When did you last get through the post a letter from a friend with a handwritten address and a real stamp?

Last week our own post consisted of fifteen mailshots, four bills, two Premium Bond cheques (good), four bank statements (not so good), two credit card statements and three forms from the Inland Revenue (yuk).

It seems to me that, while Postman Pat may not be heading for early retirement the kind of stuff he is delivering has changed in the last few years and will change more rapidly in the future. Except for some things

Sir Rowland Hill introduced the penny post in January 1840. It cost just 1d to send a letter anywhere within the British Isles. The first Christmas cards appeared in the mid-1840s. If it was the Post Office who invented them it must be the most successful long-running promotion ever. We all send about 1,460 million each year two-thirds of all greetings cards. And they cost us about 292 million.

Of course, you can send electronic cards now through the internet. I had a brilliant birthday card from my son in Germany this year. He had drawn his own portrait. His face animated and he sang (in his own voice) Happy Birthday, then fireworks exploded in the sky. But, even if you can print them out, you cant hang up e-mails all around the house at Christmas. I dont think Clinton Cards has too much to worry about yet.

Increasingly, Postman Pat will be delivering mailshots. (Junk mail is simply a mailshot that is poorly targeted and creatively inept.) About 4,345 million mailshots each year at the moment, three-quarters of them being for consumer items. The cost, including postage, is around 1,876 million. The postage bit of this 814 million is a very healthy income for Postman Pats employers. And it still seems to be the fastest-growing advertising sector.

But virtually all the mailshots we get nowadays invite us to order the goods by going to their website. Or ordering through an 0800 (freephone) number. They dont want us to fill in the paper order form and post it back. But if we really want to write everything down, they would rather we faxed back our order than posted it. There is not much point in trying to ring them up, as you instantly get into a nightmare of pushbutton options and queueing systems. We usually fax our orders, so that at least we have a record of what we have done. Easier and a lot cheaper than walking to the nearest pillar box about 200 yards away. Not good news for Postman Pat.

Faxing messages is still not universally understood though. As one secretary said: This fax machine isnt working. Every time I put the piece of paper in it comes back out again a few seconds later.

The escalation of e-mail

E-mail is going to be the killer for personal mail. Not yet, because most people havent got it. But they are getting there, fast. Maybe Alan Sugars new 80 e-mail machine will help too. Though I dont plan to spend hours typing in e-mails onto my next-generation mobile phone. In the last year, we have received more letters from friends than ever before: chatty, gossipy letters; jokes worth sharing; invitations to suppers and parties; even thank you letters. Last week, in addition to our real post, we must have had at least 40 e-mails. Not one with a stamp on.

Of course, I can now write to my old school friend in Australia much more often than the usual Christmas letter. It takes only minutes and costs about 2p. No doubt Sir Rowland Hill would be thrilled.

Plus the business e-mails. Most of my briefs for writing things now arrive by e-mail. And my advertising clients and newspapers and magazines now accept copy only as an e-mail attachment. Forget faxing it, and certainly not putting it in the post.

Since, as far as I can tell, many teenagers are becoming more and more illiterate it is quite rare to see a teenage defendant in court who can actually read the oath unaided e-mail will be a great help. It checks your spelling before you send it (though it cannot yet check the sense) and the rapidly improving voice-recognition software will soon mean that you dont even have to attempt to spell anything correctly. So you can confidently send off CVs to dozens of companies at once with a few clicks of the mouse.

I wonder why the Royal Mail does not seem to have got into this new millennium business. My AOL connection works fine, but is American. There seems to be no way I can sign up to instead, which sounds much posher.

In the unlikely event that our own Postman Pat ever reads this, dont worry mate. E-mail and e-commerce will never be able to feed our cat chocolate drops as it waits outside the front door for you.