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Snail mail faces a slow and steady demise thanks to an increasing uptake in digital communication. (Photo: Getty)
Snail mail faces a slow and steady demise thanks to an increasing uptake in digital communication. (Photo: Getty)

SocietyMay 14, 2024

‘I get bread and milk in the mail’: Why the decline of post will hurt rural communities

Snail mail faces a slow and steady demise thanks to an increasing uptake in digital communication. (Photo: Getty)
Snail mail faces a slow and steady demise thanks to an increasing uptake in digital communication. (Photo: Getty)

Rural post is essential but expensive, and residents are worried about its future.

It’s 9.30am on a Monday morning in rural Manawatū, and farmer Mairi Whittle is on an all-terrain vehicle with her two young sons. After moving sheep from one slope to another, she swings by the letterbox. Opening the door, she is pleased to see the delivery of the weekly farming publications and an electric dog collar she had sent away for repairs, but the boys are more excited by the loaf of bread waiting inside.

Whittle’s family is one of almost 280,000 rural households that NZ Post delivers to around the country. The nearest town, Taihape, is a 25-minute drive away, so she and her partner only venture in twice a week for kindy drop off, the grocery run and any other pressing errands. 

In between, they rely on the rural postie for papers, parcels and the odd pantry staple. “Mondays and Thursdays I get bread and milk in the mail,” she says. “It’s just so handy. You can kind of get by if you’ve got bread and milk.”

Mairi Whittle and her family. (Photo supplied)

Globally, snail mail faces a slow and steady demise thanks to an increasing uptake in digital communication. Handwritten letters from Nana or postcards from holidaying friends have become a rare joy to receive, and even all those unwelcome bills, bank statements and application forms have been replaced by downloadable equivalents. In fact, according to NZ Post, the number of items sent through the post in Aotearoa each year has decreased from 1 billion 20 years ago to 220 million now.

Over the last decade, NZ Post has responded with sweeping changes – staff cuts, post office closures, price increases and reductions in services across the entire postal network – to try to keep their ever-evolving business profitable, as per its obligations as a state-owned enterprise. For many New Zealanders, these small changes will hardly register, but that’s not the case for rural residents, who are following them closely, with increasing worry. 

So why are rural New Zealanders so reliant on post to keep them connected with the outside world?

Gabrielle O’Brien, chief executive of Rural Women New Zealand, points out that in order to access post’s digital replacements, people need to be online. The Commerce Commission’s 2023 Rural Connectivity Study found that 87% of the country’s population now have access to fibre, but a significant number of people live in remote areas where internet services are not available. For those that do have connectivity, it can be patchy, cost more and come with data caps, so physical post and newspapers that are delivered via NZ Post are a more reliable means of communicating and accessing information. 

Internet access can be difficult in rural communities, says Gabrielle O’Brien, chief executive of Rural Women New Zealand. (Photo supplied)

Rural populations are also typically older than urban ones, and age can come with an associated digital hesitancy. Grey Power vice president Pete Matcham told RNZ last year that half of over-75s prefer to use post even if they have the opportunity and ability to use the internet. “Digital doesn’t work for everyone, “ says O’Brien, “and care needs to be taken to avoid digital exclusion.” 

This is why, across the country, crucial communication like specialist appointments and voting enrolments still come through the post. While there’s “bugger all” cell phone reception on their hilly farm, Whittle is lucky to have good WiFi at the house, so she does most of the family’s business and personal admin online. She’s eight-months pregnant, though, and has a son with an ongoing medical condition, so she relies on the regular delivery of hospital correspondence to keep her up to date.

Parcel delivery will always play an important role, and can’t be digitised: birthday presents and internet purchases need to show up at the door. Whittle only makes it into the big smoke of Palmerston North every couple of months, so packages are a regular feature in the family’s mailbox. “I think rural mums are quite good at online shopping,” she laughs. “It’s essential really. Often, you just can’t get the things you need in town.”

The rural mail service is not only about what is being delivered, but also what is being picked up. Those little flags on the side of country mailboxes, if raised, signify to the postie that there are items to be collected. Rural postie vans are like post offices on wheels, selling stamps and prepaid envelopes and boxes. Whittle recently discovered she can pack her son’s Te Kura correspondence books into a prepaid mail bag and leave them in her letterbox for the postie to pick up, saving her the hassle of driving to the post office in town.

Mail delivery is a vital service, but an increasingly difficult one to make profitable. In 2022/2023, NZ Post reported a $49 million profit, but this is less than half the profit of the previous financial year. Servicing rural areas is expensive. “Compared to urban areas, we have vehicles travelling much larger distances to service fewer people,” NZ Post chief operating officer Brendon Main explains via email. Talking about the business as a whole, he says “we need to continue to make some hard decisions about our future and the services we offer.”

Getting mail to remote places is expensive. (Photo: NZ Post)

The good news for rural New Zealanders is that a regulatory tool called the Deed of Understanding provides NZ Post with minimum obligations to ensure equal access to the postal network and protect customers who are most difficult to serve. Currently, it stipulates that rural delivery must take place five days per week – compared to three days per week in the city – because of rural residents’ increased reliance on the service. It also requires a minimum of 880 retail points of service across the country. 

But in recent years, there has been a steady stream of post office closures. Often the post offices are replaced by service counters inside a local business such as a dairy, pharmacy or petrol station, but sometimes they aren’t replaced at all. O’Brien points out that a new service could be an extra 15 minutes drive away for some people living rurally, making access even more difficult.

Whittle’s nearest post office shares a counter with the Lotto stand inside the local New World. It is usually chaotic: the women behind the counter provide multiple services to long lines of waiting customers. “Now, it feels almost like an inconvenient part of the supermarket,” Whittle says, “when it’s actually quite an essential part of people’s lives.” In rural service town Te Puke, the post office was seen as so central to the community that, in 2019, locals banded together to save it from closure through a crowdfunding campaign. The post office continues to run through a charitable trust. 

In June 2023, NZ Post chief executive David Walsh told RNZ that rural customers would see “almost no change” to the services NZ Post already offered. But in April 2024, NZ post announced that from June this year, it would no longer deliver parcels and newspapers on Saturdays – letter delivery had already been scrapped on the weekend – because of a lack of commercial viability. 

O’Brien says rural residents count on Saturday newspapers for up-to-date information. Items such as a machinery part for a broken tractor or medicine for sick stock can be time sensitive, she adds. From June 2024, farmers will have to choose between the hassle and expense of driving to town and waiting two days for delivery, potentially reducing farm productivity. Some rural businesses essential to New Zealand’s primary industries also rely on Saturday post for parcel pick-ups; O’Brien is worried that an inability to promptly deliver their products will affect customers’ willingness to buy from them online. 

Parcel delivery can’t be digitised. (Photo: NZ Post)

To add insult to injury, while services have reduced, prices have increased. In 2020, the government allocated $130 million over three years to help NZ Post cover its financial losses from volume decline and to keep prices from rising too steeply. That financial support has now ended. The cost to send a standard letter anywhere in the country increased to $2 in July last year – in the past five years, the cost has increased by 80 cents. 

On top of the regular postage fee is a rural parcel delivery surcharge of $5.50, and Whittle has felt the pinch. “I feel like prices have been going up heaps,” she says. “I do a lot of looking for bargains on [Facebook] Marketplace, but it’s hard because … you find something for $10-15, but then it will be like $10-15 rural postage.” 

The other price hike announced last year was a 30% increase in the cost of bulk mailing, affecting organisations like Rural Women, who still use post to correspond with 200 of their members who don’t have an email address. Across the country, people have had to absorb these additional costs, but it hits harder for rural folk who have few, if any, alternatives. As price is not mentioned in the Deed of Understanding, there are currently no caps on increases, which is surprising given rising costs could affect access for those on lower incomes. 

The deed is up for review in June this year, and O’Brien says Rural Women will advocate strongly for their communities to retain the service in its current form. But given the expense and the fact that internet connectivity has improved since the last review in 2018, she isn’t confident that Monday-to-Friday rural delivery will continue. She points out that losing that five-day service would not only be a loss on a practical level, but also a social one, as posties are highly regarded in their communities. “They do a great job,” she says, “and they’re also often a bit of a connection point, in terms of knowing what’s going on in the area.” A Reddit thread from last year, NZ Post rural delivery contractors are f’kin awesome, is full of grateful anecdotes of hand deliveries and chats with friendly posties who know their customers by name.

NZ Post COO Brendon Main. (Photo supplied)

Looking ahead, NZ Post acknowledges that rural post has a long and important future, but is cagey when asked about any upcoming changes. “As we have for the last ten years, we are constantly reviewing our mail service across the network,” COO Main says, “in line with our obligation to be profitable and efficient.” 

And therein lies the problem. “From our perspective, it’s not just about what’s commercially viable,” says O’Brien of Rural Women. “It’s also about what implications this has for isolated communities.” For those communities to “thrive,” she adds, “you need to have a minimum service.” Every small change to rural post makes its customers nervous about what’s on the chopping block next, O’Brien says. 

Back on the farm, Whittle is also worried about the future of rural mail. “I know they are cutting things back and we definitely couldn’t do without it,” she says. “There are people that live another 40 minutes up the road from us, so it’s keeping all those people in touch too.” 

But until things change, she will continue making her daily visit to the letterbox for the same essential deliveries. After all, a one-hour round trip to town is one hell of a mission just for some bread and milk.

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