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Royal Mail Should Be Making A Mint From Stamp Collectors

I fear Royal Mail, which now has a share price to worry about, is failing to recognise what their customer expectations are from their collectables business in the 21st century. Worse still, rather than face up to this problem, they seem all too willing to blame the customer for losing interest in the product rather than question what needs to change about the product to keep the customer interested.

Given the increasing competitive challenges Royal Mail face in their core logistics business, it is perhaps understandable that philately is being treated as a side show left to simply "carry on as usual". Some may argue that there is considerable investment going on in the collectables business at Royal Mail and use the revamped website or new IT system in Edinburgh as evidence.

But the IT system seems to be intended to help keep Tallents House doing what they already do but, I suspect, with less human resources involved per transaction. The system doesn't seem to be adding anything to the philatelic offering. As for the recent upgrade to the Royal Mail website, I accept it has made some things better but, for stamp collectors, online ordering is only marginally better than it was before. You still can't place any kind of bespoke order for individual stamp values, specific definitives etc. so this still has to be done over the phone. Not the smartest use of web technology I've seen in this day and age.

All this comes at a time when the demand for bespoke orders going in to Tallents House must be (or should be) mushrooming. Why? Because the number of Crown Post Offices and philatelic counters in the UK are going down faster than beer in a rugby club and, sadly, the new independent "locals" simply ignore philately in most cases.

The non involvement of "locals" is understandable given there's no properly organised philatelic knowledgebase available to them and no support for those well sited to grow a collectables business. As a result most of our Post Offices rarely stock the items collectors want now. It's a shame that our Post Office management can only see a future in trying to get sub-posties to farm leads for things like Bank of Ireland mortgages and badged insurance products while they completely overlook the potential of the readymade collectables business many locals could be exploiting.

So that's got what I believe is the fundamental problem out in the open. Now it's time to get optimistic again and suggest things that COULD be happening for our hobby given some enthusiasm high up at Royal Mail and some more imaginative management of our languishing Post Office network.

While I don't collect British coins, I have been looking at them lately to see why that hobby has been steadily growing and succeeding in parallel with the decline of stamp collecting. If all the reasons I've heard offered for the diminishing interest in stamps are true then I fail to see why coins aren't being afflicted with the same commercial pox? But then I looked at the Royal Mint website and things began to make sense.

If you are a collector you want to know hard and fast facts about the items you are investing in with your hard earned, fully taxed income or savings. This is where Royal Mail is woeful. Now I do appreciate that information can be a sensitive and difficult thing to manage but that's not an excuse for keeping your customers constantly guessing about their investments past, present or future.

Royal Mail, in all its various guises since 1840, has been lucky to have organisations such as Stanley Gibbons producing catalogues with enough data in them to keep most collectors on side. But is that enough in the information age? I suspect not. Collectors today would get a much better idea of the real value of a stamp by clicking on to eBay's completed listings.

The catalogue values provided by the likes of SG are not genuinely representative of the material we, the 99%, own and trade. We aren't the people who can go laundering our ill gotten millions in London auction houses. Sorry - cough - what I meant was, we aren't the elite customers that can afford the choicest material that commands the premium prices reflected in catalogues.

So back to the Royal Mint Website. Take a look because, if you happen to have one of the numerous special coins issued in recent years, you can quickly and easily see exactly how many were produced and, for the uncirculated coins, numbers minted, numbers sold and the size of stock remaining. Given that kind of knowledge you will happily pay the going rate for a collectable coin with your eyes wide open. No guesswork needed. Fantastic.

So, Royal Mail, why not follow the Royal Mint lead with your special stamp issues? Give us some basic numbers for the items you want us to buy from you. We are living in the information age now and we want to make informed buying decisions. Even I, a die hard stamp man for most of my life, felt an immediate interest sparked in Britains special coins because of that information being made available FREE on the web. Nobody collecting modern British coins feels they have to spend £30 or more a year to get what amounts to little more than a long list of stamps and any basic variations and little else other than pie in the sky valuations.

I've had to explain too many times to owners of modern Royal Mail First Day Covers that they've done their money. It isn't funny having people think you're only saying it to try and cheat them in to selling up for peanuts and having to emphasise reality by refusing to offer anything at all rather than insult them. What has Royal Mail done in the past few decades to reverse this destructive situation? Diddly squat.

It's not rocket science either. All they have to do is produce FDCs cancelled with their official FDI postmarks for standing order customers ONLY. Not one cover more. That way there is instantly going to be more demand than supply and values will grow over time. Does anyone fancy a bet on how long it would take for some Royal Mail spokesman to bask in the glory of a positive headline about rising numbers of standing order customers? But wait a minute, who could then make money by offering a more personal FDC service to local residents featuring their town or village postmark? Oh, look over yonder - there's one of those Post Offices people used to buy stamps from...

So how many Animail sheets will you be producing Royal Mail? Oh, you won't tell me. How many Animail FDCs will be produced using each of the official RM FDI special postmarks? Oh, you wont tell me. How many Queens 90th Birthday retail booklets are sold and how many remain in stock? How many.... Yet Royal Mail expect you and me to choose to spend our finite discretionary cash on this range of products? I could go along with this if we were talking about throw away souvenirs all priced at a quid each by a market trader but we're not. The Animail issue coming next week is effectively a sheet of just six colourful kids stickers for which the collector, it is taken for granted, will pay more than £6! Errrr....

Perhaps a better way to illustrate the poor information flow from Royal Mail is what happens when things go wrong. Back in 2003 the £2 Machin with a missing £ symbol appeared. We know from the production process that this affected one stamp in 200. But how many were left in circulation after the delayed withdrawal process took place? Just how rare is this stamp now? Are there loads of them secretly tucked away under the beds of shrewd sub-postmasters just waiting to retire before cashing in?

Numbers do matter. An equally dramatic error happened in 1980 when the "P" was missed off the value of a Charlotte Bronte 12p stamp on every sheet. These aren't at all difficult to get and now swap hands on eBay 36 years later for around a tenner, give or take, and SG value the variety at £25 or so. Last time I checked SG valued the missing £ Machin at £175 so, now you know all that, what will you bid on eBay if you see one?

Now, by comparison, in 2008 a number of 20p coins were released with no date on them. I can tell you there are less than 250,000 in existence from a total production during that year of 36m. So roughly 1 in 550 20p pieces that year had the missing date error. They have a stable price bracket now which is determined mainly, and quite rightly, by the condition of the individual coin.

So what is the better investment? The 20p coin or the missing £ Machin? Remember, I'm not asking the price, I'm asking which is likely to appreciate more in value due to its rarity falling below the likely demand. Has the value gone for one or the other, or both, now? I have my own opinion of what the answer is but, as I cannot make an argument based on all the facts, I will have to let you form your own opinion.

So I don't believe people are losing their interest in collecting stamps. I'm confident that, once the postage stamp either gives way to technology or Royal Mail wakes up to what they're doing with philately, there will be good returns for people in future who are brave enough to bet against the crowd today by selectively buying some of the new stamps being issued. What I do believe people are losing interest in is the way Royal Mail market British postage stamps.

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Royal Mail Should Be Making A Mint From Stamp Collectors

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