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The slow death of Surface Mail

Posted by Andrew Humphrey on

Updated and moved to



Overseas customers often ask why I don't offer a slow and cheap Surface Mail option for larger deliveries.

I wish I could. Here's the story.

I previously did offer Surface Mail (sent by sea, not air) as a delivery option for customers worldwide. It is cheap, and hence attractive to customers, and while it is too slow for most people -- up to 12 weeks delivery by sea -- that was fine for some customers who did not need their order urgently.

Unfortunately, when the UK Royal Mail rebranded Surface Mail as "International Economy" in 2014, they quietly removed the main features that made it useful for large, non-urgent packages: optional tracking, and extra insurance and compensation above the standard £20. I only discovered this when following the change of name from Surface Mail to International Economy I tried to send a large heavy package to a customer in Yemen. It was worth over £100, so I wanted to add the extra insurance and tracking. The post office staff told me it was no longer possible to add these features to the rebranded International Economy. I and my customer were limited to £20 compensation if the £100+ parcel was lost, damaged or undelivered.

In my opinion, Royal Mail removed the tracking and extra insurance options deliberately, to make International Economy less attractive and in effect virtually unusable. The Post Office website says the service is ideal for "heavier parcels that don’t need to arrive in a hurry", but if a package is large and heavy enough for the sender to consider using International Economy, surely the contents are highly likely to be worth more than £20? For a while I did continue to offer delivery by International Economy for all overseas orders, but in the end I stopped. No way did I want to be stuck with compensating a customer for lost contents worth £100 or more, when the Royal Mail would only compensate me maximum £20.

Removing the option for additional insurance has forced people to use more expensive and, for Royal Mail and the Post Office, more lucrative options. Given that staff at small Post Offices are specifically instructed to "upsell" services, I suppose I should not be surprised.

Following Royal Mail's quiet rebranding of the Surface Mail option as International Economy, the Post Office then went a step further in slowly throttling it. They started hiding the very existence of the International Economy service. Ask the counter staff at main Crown Post Offices for your options for sending an overseas package, and they will never mention International Economy. It became a game for me, even when I had no intention of using the service. Several times I called out the counter staff at the London Bridge Post Office for omitting to mention it. One even said there was no longer any such service. And the self-service counters at main Post Offices won't help with these painful exchanges because -- do I need to tell you? -- International Economy is the only service not available through the self-service machines, and nor do the machines refer you to the counter for additional options.

Again, by stealth, International Economy is made that bit more difficult to choose, because (1) you need to already know about it, and (2) you need to join the counter queue to use it  -- if the staff member even acknowledges that it exists.  

At smaller sub-Post Offices, staff are for sure not trained to know that International Economy exists. On the Post Office's disastrous Horizon IT system the option is conveniently hidden on a separate screen. I have seen this for myself: my local sub-Post Office showed me the screen to explain why he had initially told me there was no such service. Again, this is surely deliberate.

There's more. Any claim for loss or damage for a package sent by International Economy must be done by requesting a paper claim form, while all other services have an online claim. The claim requires original proof of purchase and value, both of which most retailers need to keep for their accounts. Again, Royal Mail is using stealth to make International Economy virtually unusable.

So it seems pretty clear to me that International Economy does not generate enough revenue for Royal Mail, and so they have a policy of actively marginalising it into a slow death, or even pretending it is dead already. One day the service will be withdrawn, like International Reply Coupons were in 2011, and Royal Mail will say it is because no-one was using it.  Well, I wonder why?

There was another problem with online retailers like me offering delivery by International Economy, but this one is not Royal Mail's fault. It is about customer behaviour. When I did offer International Economy for orders of any value, or even now only for orders below £20, I found that some customers were automatically choosing it because it was the cheapest option, disregarding my heavy klaxon warnings about the 12-week delivery time, and about the lack of tracking and insurance. They would call me 10 days after dispatch demanding to know where their delivery is, asking for tracking details, etc.  I had a few very difficult conversations with angry customers, and I had to find a nice way to remind them that they specifically chose this service from all the available options, with a 12-week delivery time and without tracking or insurance.

So. if you are genuinely happy to wait a couple of months for your Tupperware, and you accept the risk of sending your delivery without insurance above £20 or any tracking, I am happy to do it for you.  Please contact me direct to discuss. But I am sure you won't because it is not a good deal for either you or me. Which is Royal Mail's cunning plan.

Photo from Catford Couriers

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  • I recently sent something international signed from 3-5 days…. it hasn’t even left the country and we’re up to 2 weeks. I wish I’d gone for land mail.

    Brian on
  • Thankyou !! Someone finally explained why the postal costs are now alarming and Im constantly told that there is no other option just to ship a few old clothes that I might need one day on the other end. The butcher mentioned it to me today and so I googled and found your very helpful insight. Thanks a million.

    rhonda on
  • Thank you for this! I’ve been stung by this multiple times recently, thinking I was going bonkers with the seeming fluctuation of postage costs. It’s made international sales for my small business recently absolutely pointless as I’ve spent any earnings I’ve made on the extra shipping so I’ve been essentially just giving things away.

    Flo on

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