Postcards are fun. They’re meant to be an inexpensive way to share a message, moment or experience with friends or family. In the constantly connected world of Facebook, Twitter, et al, it’s much more meaningful to receive something physical, that someone has gone to the trouble of choosing, handwriting the message, remembering your address, finding stamps and a post box, in order to send to you.

In Taiwan, sending postcards is easy and cheap, only 2.5NT$ within the country (about £0.05) or up to 12NT$ for international airmail (~£0.24). Although I send quite a lot of postcards, the cost has never been prohibitive here.

I recently discovered Royal Mail in the UK are, once again, increasing their prices. From March 31st it will cost just less than one whole golden pound to send an international airmail postcard, £0.97 in fact. I know in some European countries the cost is similar, more than 1€. This seemingly huge disparity led to some “back of an envelope” calculations…

Lets say I want to send three thousand postcards1 from my house in Bristol to my friends in Taiwan and, because they are all lovely, my friends each send me a postcard in return.

UK to Taiwan using Royal Mail

3000 x £0.97 = £2910.00

Taiwan to UK using 中華郵政 (The Taiwanese Post Office)

3000 x 12NT$ = 36000NT$ => Approximately5 £720.00

Wow, more than £2000 difference!

So, it seems Royal Mail is more than four times the cost of 中華郵政, for the same service just in the other direction. So perhaps there is some combination of excessive profiteering or major inefficiency on the part of Royal Mail? …or perhaps 中華郵政 operates at a vast loss, skewing the result? Obviously the above is a very simplistic comparison and doesn’t consider any underlying factors, but as food for thought, given my envelope still has a little space left on the back, what happens if I send my three thousand postcards by “Happy Cat Post” instead (just transport them myself!)

UK to Taiwan by “Happy Cat Post” (self-transport by domestic airline!)

Number of Cards 3000
Average weight of a postcard 7g
Total weight of postcards 21kg
Cost of a bus to Bristol Airport £7.00
Flight ticket: Bristol to Taipei (桃園)2 £899.00
Cost for my time (Lets say 24hours at £50 / h) £1200.00
Cost of "last leg" delivery3 £150.00
Total delivery time4 24h + 96h = 5 days
Total cost of delivery £2256.00

It turns out that it is almost £700 pounds cheaper than Royal Mail, equivalent to 22% discount, if I just carry my three thousand postcards on the next available domestic flight to Taiwan, then post them on to each individual address using Taiwan’s domestic postal service (中華郵政)… Not to mention that this includes (a) paying myself a decent wage whilst transporting the postcards (b) flying myself to Taiwan, not just the postcards (c) the total delivery time matching or bettering that of Royal Mail!

Although ‘Social’ mail is only a small proportion of total mail volume handled by Royal Mail, it is one of the segments that will persist in this electronic age or even grow, subject to it being affordable. The PwC report ‘The outlook for UK mail volumes to 2023’, July 2013 states plainly: “Price rises have contributed to more than half of the decline in social mail volumes during the last five years”.

Maybe Royal Mail should investigate if there is anything in the Taiwanese postal model that they can use to keep prices more encouraging.

Notes

  • N.B. When this article was originally written 2014 / 03 / 16, Royal Mail had indicated that international postcards would cost up to £1.28. Since then they have published further information to clarify that the up-to-10g airmail rate will still exist, and cost 97p. The information here was updated 2014 / 04 / 01 to incorporate that clarification.
  1. Three thousand postcards matches the weight limit of an international economy airplane flight. The model holds true as long as the number of postcards is of this order or more. I imagine Royal Mail deal with significantly larger quantities.

  2. I did not search for a particularly cheap flight. At the time of writing there were several flights Bristol->Taipei leaving within the next 24 hours at this price point. Significantly cheaper domestic flights are sometimes available, further increasing the cost disparity.

  3. Each of my three thousand cards will go to a different address in Taiwan, so having arrived, I will use the normal domestic postal service, 中華郵政, to deliver the postcards; In the same way Royal Mail does when sending to Taiwan. 3000 x 2.5NT$ = 7500NT$ => £150.00

  4. Allowing one day for my travel to Bristol Airport and the flight to Taiwan and then four additional days for 中華郵政 to deliver the postcards within Taiwan. 中華郵政 usually deliver between urban areas substantially quicker than this though.

  5. An exchange rate of 50NT$ to £1 sterling is used throughout this page.