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Post Office confronts an electronic future

The humble letter holds charms that email can't match


How post offices should respond to challenges posed by technology and market liberalisation is being debated at conference of the Universal Postal Union.

The three-day meeting in Geneva comes a week after the Swiss Post Office announced plans for a radical overhaul which will lead to 2,500 job cuts.

The 700 delegates are discussing how organisations devoted to moving paper from place to place should deal with a future increasingly enveloped by email messages.

The UPU predicts that the volume of postal mail will continue to increase by an annual rate of two per cent until 2005. But there is increasing scepticism that growth can be sustained in the long term.

This would affect Europe and the United States in particular, where post offices are also facing pressure to cut costs from government liberalisation measures.

Last week, the Swiss Post Office said it planned to close the country's 18 mail sorting centres and replace them with just three centres. It said the cuts were necessary to save SFr200 million ($133 million) a year in order to remain competitive in a liberalised market.

Say it in ink

However, a slow-down does not spell the end of the postal service as a whole, the UPU says.

It maintains that despite the convenience and ease of email - whose image is helped along by mushy Hollywood films such as "You've got mail" - mand people still prefer the more personal approach of putting pen to paper.

The UPU is convinced that e-mail cannot rival the depth of emotion conveyed by a letter, which should ensure the survival of envelopes and stamps alongside their online equivalents.

The Internet revolution

While the Internet certainly poses a threat to post offices, it also throws up opportunities, says Claude Defoundoux, head of strategic planning at UPU.

"Any goods ordered on the web have to be delivered by post," he explains, adding that the rise of e-commerce provides a growth opportunity, particularly in the package delivery sector.

Postal offices should also take advantage of new technologies to improve the quality of their services and to cut costs, he adds.

There has already been some progress, with the introduction of electronic stamps and the possibility of tracing the whereabouts of a package or of a registered letter online.

Unique client base

The postal service is unique in having an all-encompassing customer base, Defoundoux points out.

"Simply everyone, from private citizens to multinationals, uses the post office, " he says. "So we mustn't forget about our client base, but we should also adapt to the needs of the most important clients, such as large businesses."

In Switzerland, private customers and small and medium sized businesses account for only 19 per cent of the total postal traffic, according Anthon Menth, chairman of the Swiss Post Office's board.

The remaining 81 per cent is generated by large businesses.

Swiss unions have already expressed concern that the interests of private customers and small businesses are being jeopardised as the Post Office panders to the needs of its biggest earners.

Samuel König of the Swiss Union for Communications acknowledges that the Post Office must factor in financial considerations. But, he says, it should continue to provide a national public service, and the state should be ready to assist, if necessary.

swissinfo, Doris Lucini

In brief

A Universal Postal Union conference in Geneva is considering the future of post offices amid rapid technological and economic changes.
The UPU was founded in 1874 and became a United Nations agency in 1948.
It represents 189 countries and has its headquarters in Bern.

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Key facts

Five million people are employed by post offices worldwide.
There are 660,000 postal offices.
Around 430 billion letters and packages are sent per year.

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