Delivering the goods

With internet sales accounting for nearly 30% of the book market, Royal Mail is now an integral part of the trade. During the recent industrial action at the Post Office, here at The Book Depository we certainly felt a blunting of growth as customers decided to hold back on purchasing or to buy on the High Street. Thankfully—and unlike with the strikes of two years ago that created a huge backlog and weeks of delays—Royal Mail has come out of this action relatively cleanly by employing a large number of temporary staff.

As Royal Mail turns itself from a public service to a business it is inevitable that there will be employee relation and service issues. We all remember getting second post and timely morning deliveries! Undoubtedly, there will be more official and unofficial industrial action. Despite this, Royal Mail is still one of the best postal operators in the world. A First Class stamp is just 39p—one of the cheapest prices in Europe—and for that you can have a letter delivered reliably the next day. Also, Royal Mail excels at international delivery. It has made it very easy for us to grow our worldwide business.

Anyway, for direct to consumer book shipments, there are no real alternatives. Yes, there are other licensed postal operators like TNT and UK Mail, but they simply deliver into Royal Mail regional hubs. Royal Mail does the distribution to delivery offices and looks after the vital final mile. During the recent action, anecdotal evidence suggests that these other postal operators were worst affected with returning Royal Mail staff working first on their "own" items.

The final mile is what Royal Mail excels at. Firstly, they hit 25 million home and business addresses every day. And secondly, the posties know their customers so well that most deliveries are made safely and securely. Even when delivery fails, the customer only needs to pop down to the local post office to collect their package and not to a courier company based miles away.

Some courier companies are starting to make headway on prices, particularly in high density locations like London. Although they can't hit a price point of 60p–70p for a delivered paperback, it is not unfeasible for online booksellers to place three book shipments over a kilo with these carriers.

Of course, one way of circumventing this whole issue is to deliver electronically. Now that the international Kindle has arrived, UK book readers can access and download books wherever they want. That is, if they can charge it with the US plug that oddly comes with it.