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SocietyJuly 13, 2023

The customer outcry that’s part and parcel of rising postage prices

books with stamps on them and wings against a light blue stamp background
(Image: Tina Tiller)

Frustration over NZ Post’s recent changes are a reminder that, even in the digital age, the demand for physical objects hasn’t gone away. 

Heath Ling prides himself on efficiency, so he was upset when changes to NZ Post’s parcel sending system were unveiled on July 1, along with increases to the cost of sending letters and upcoming redundancies. Previously, the owner of Christchurch’s Steadfast Books used prepaid postage bags, buying a range of different sizes so the mail cost was predictable. 

Now those prepaid bags are no longer available, Ling, who sends up to 10 books at a time, is eking out the last of his supply. The new system doesn’t make sense to him, he says. He has to buy the bags and the postage stickers separately, doubling the admin, and making it more difficult to keep track of labels – which stickers are for which size bag? – and tracking numbers. He hasn’t tried printing stickers out at home. “It seems that they’ve changed it just for the sake of changing it,” Ling says. “It just seems messy.” 

NZ Post says changes are intended to simplify things for most day-to-day customers, although there may end up being more admin for retailers selling postal services. “We found that a lot of people were buying prepaid parcels with a tracking number and thinking they were getting a courier service and getting confused,” says Sarah Sandoval, NZ Post’s consumer general manager. “We still have a nationwide price, but this makes it clearer that the choice is between economy and courier delivery.” 

nz post blue and red branded van
July 1 saw the introduction of a range of changes to postal services in Aotearoa (image: supplied)

Prices for sending the smallest bag size have increased from $5.20 to $5.80 (the bag costs $1 by itself). The recent price increases are not connected to the new system for mailing bags, Sandoval says, but an upside is there won’t be so much waste “We would have to destroy large numbers of the bags with the prices printed on them when we made the changes, which didn’t sit right – we don’t have to do that any more.” 

Booksellers aren’t the only people reckoning with the changes. The cost of sending bulk mail has increased 100% over the last five years, which particularly hurts businesses that send a lot of mail and people who can’t access or aren’t confident using digital services. 

“Putting the price up affects the equity of access… not just for rural, but elderly communities as well,” Rural Women executive Gabrielle O’Brien told One News last month. Rural Women was one of 13 organisations, including magazine publishers, that supported a letter questioning the deed of understanding between the government and the state-owned NZ Post, which is meant to ensure equal access to the postal network for everyone who relies on it.

a light skinned hnd reaches into a mailbox with a tree in the background
The demand for mail services has changed in the last two decades. (Image: Tony Anderson/Getty Images)

The discussion over postal service provision is a reminder of how the means of getting physical goods has and hasn’t changed in the digital age. While NZ Post delivers fewer personal items than before, online shopping has transformed its business services, Sandoval says. For instance, people used to send gifts by buying something and mailing it overseas themselves. However, it’s now common to instead buy something online that can be delivered in another country. “We have a huge role to play in connecting people,” Sandoval asserts. During the pandemic, post volumes temporarily increased, as people mailed gifts they might otherwise have delivered in person; now volumes continue their downward trend, even as the online shopping line goes up.

The increase in online shopping has meant an increase in competition in the courier sector too. Courier services are popular both for businesses and for individuals wanting to sell things on Trade Me or Facebook Marketplace, Sandoval says – the door-to-door convenience has in many cases replaced trips to the post office. 

The NZ Booksellers Association has created a group deal with a freight company for its members to use, executive chair Pene Whitty confirms: the increasing cost of shipping will be a topic at their conference later this month. 

a very cluttered warehouse of books!
Hard to Find Books in Dunedin sends dozens of books a day through its internet shop (Picture: supplied)

Secondhand bookshops, which often provide more unusual books that are sought after by a select few, embody the ongoing importance of shipping services. Secondhand bookshop stalwart Hard To Find Books has an internet branch run out of its Dunedin location, using courier company PBT for most domestic shipping, and sending overseas items through NZ Post. “By virtue of the internet we’re able to justify stocking some real niche stuff,” manager Blaze Forbes says. 

The downside of selling online is that a bookshop has to offer the best deal, since there may be several places selling the same book. “We need to be selling the cheapest copy on the internet, and we have to take into account postage as part of that,” Forbes says. The potential cost of postage becomes a crucial factor in acquiring books too. 

In sorting through his stock, Forbes is reminded of the power of physical objects – and the corresponding necessity of being able to get those objects to whoever might desire them. These books are often unavailable digitally, or are for customers looking for particular editions. “You don’t want to visit someone and see that they have no books – someone’s books offer a sense of who they are,” he says.

For books with a niche audience – he gives the example of a recent find, a collection of prisoner’s letters from the 1700s – it may not be worth letting that book take up shelf space in the physical store. “There are some weird and strange corners that the human mind has gone to, but the internet will connect the audience to that book.”

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