Let’s talk about stamps, baby

Let’s chat about the post. The mail. Shipping. Stamps! Here is a pretty example of postage:

stamps from Finland on neat postmarked envelopes
By Anne Nygard on Unsplash

Here is a realistic example of postage:

I started my stationery business back in 2014 or so, and in summer 2017 when I was looking to increase orders, I asked my friends whether they prefer to pay postage on online items or not. They were unequivocal: postage is annoying, especially when your budget is £20 and your basket is £19.50 and then you hit the check out and you’re actually paying £26.72. So I decided to experiment and offer free UK postage. The same day I changed the postage settings, I had my biggest order to date, which felt like a good sign. Back then I used very thin paper envelopes and most of my items were the size of a regular letter, so free domestic postage wasn’t going to bankrupt me.

Royal Mail always put their prices up in March, sometimes by quite a bit, and over the years I began to invest in thicker envelopes and larger items requiring more postage. But my margins were still okay-ish. In 2020, Royal Mail upped their prices in March, July, September and then again from 1st January. Mostly it was international postage changes but in January UK stamp prices went up by 2-12% (biggest increase since 2012. Small parcels have gone up too. Going to blame Covid for that. And Brexit, because it makes me feel better). I realised that if I kept offering free postage, I would be paying my customers to buy my products. So at the end of December I introduced a 50p postage charge on UK items, with 10p on items thereafter. Large letter second class stamps are 96p now, so the customer is still getting a deal; I’m just making sure I don’t lose money.

On the first order I had after changing the postage price, the customer used a browser plugin to use a free postage coupon I’d forgotten about. I love my customers, I am grateful for my customers and I understand that times are tough. I get that we all resent paying for postage. I’m not frustrated at the customer, I’m frustrated at past Francesca for not remembering to cancel those long ago coupons. But still.

Frank Iero fuck off gif
from Tumblr

Orders have been quiet since. That’s a bit because it’s January, of course, and a bit because Covid is getting to everyone. But is it also a bit because of postage charge? Over on the Big E, they prioritise showing items that offer free shipping over those that don’t (great idea for those creators who have to send their expensive hand crafted items tracked and insured, or those who can’t afford to absorb the cost of postage, or anyone who isn’t a drop shipping shitbag reselling crap they found on Urban Outfitters).

I don’t know. I can either continue offering pencils at £3.95 plus 50p postage, or I can start offering pencils at £4.45. Either way people are going to be thinking ‘well that’s a bit pricy.’ It isn’t, of course. My margins are almost too low to be practical; the majority of my products are purchased from small UK suppliers, so they’re more expensive than the standard fare you find on Amazon or eBay. My suppliers are VAT registered and I’m not, so I can’t claim back that 20%. I’m not busy enough to apply the old economy of scale, either, and purchase a thousand pencils at a lower price than I pay for 250. I’m thinking of changing up my packaging, because those higher quality envelopes are eating my profits. Any savings might be negated by free replacements of items that have been crushed in the post, though. Or maybe I should only offer bundled items, because two or three products per order is a much better margin.

Or perhaps we could as consumers could start understanding that when we buy an item on the internet, the product and the postage are two different things? When I had free shipping on my shop, Royal Mail wasn’t being paid in smiles and small talk; the postage cost was coming out of the product cost alongside packaging materials, the item itself and, you know, my time. Now I’m just asking people to see the two costs in two separate columns. Are we really so used to Amazon Prime’s free-postage-24-hour-delivery-free-returns that we’ve lost our understanding that indie sellers on Folksy or Etsy aren’t using the same business model that Jeff Bezos is?

Probably.

I haven’t decided if I’m going to keep the postage charge or just raise my prices. I suppose I could go back to those cheap as eff packaging materials and say a small prayer every time I ship something. I could experiment with other postage providers, like Hermes, but I’ve heard so many bad things about their service. I could make another attempt at Click and Drop, although last time I tried printing my own shipping labels I almost threw my printer out of the window. You still have to buy those mailing stickers, anyway, so I don’t know if it’s worth it for my little cards and prints. Maybe it’s time to offer digital items with no postage cost, or much heavier, larger items with a big enough price point that I can include postage within the item price without the customer blinking. Maybe my entire business model needs rethinking.

WHO KNOWS. It’s 2021. We’re living in a world where I can’t hug my nan but white supremacists can attempt a coup d’tat in the United States legislature at the behest of the president. Anything is possible! I’m going to pop off to make a cup of tea – or maybe a gin and tonic, because 2021.

Here’s my shop, by the way, if any of my moaning has whetted your appetite. Are any of you in the online sales business? Are any of you customers with really strong feelings about online sales? Let me know your thoughts on this! I think to-charge-postage-or-to-not-charge-postage is one of those weirdly large issues that will be hanging around for the foreseeable future, and I do not have the answers so I’d love to hear some other perspectives.

Look after yourselves!


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