DIVERSIFICATION is the key to survival for our post offices, according to an interim report from the Post Office Business Development Group, chaired by entrepreneur Bobby Kerr of ‘Dragon’s Den’ fame. The group’s initial findings have been put into the public domain, inviting observations and submissions during a consultation period running from June 16th until July 28th next, which will be taken into account before its final report is published in September.
Commenting on its deliberations to date, Mr Kerr said he believed that ‘An Post is best placed to provide a customer-led solution for a host of financial and government-related services right across the country.’ The group has identified four key areas which it feels post offices can diversify into and thrive: financial services, social enterprise, public service delivery and ‘white labelling’ – the latter being the rebranding by An Post of products or services offered by other companies.
Many of the core activities of post offices, such as mail collection and delivery, have been hit in recent years by couriers and the internet, although ironically the likes of Amazon have given An Post a boost in recent times delivering goods for them. The biggest threat to their existence will come when the current contract with the Department of Social Protection for the payment of pensions and welfare benefits runs out and, even already, the Department is encouraging recipients to have monies transferred directly into their bank accounts – much to the disgust of postmasters whose union plans to run candidates in the next general election in protest.
Inevitably, in the long term, pensions and benefits will end up being paid directly into people’s bank accounts, so the post offices will have to diversify into new areas to compensate for this loss of business. In modernising their offering, they will need to provide the services that will attract customers, otherwise they will not get sufficient footfall.
Leaving aside the undisputed immense social value of rural post offices, a worrying statistic revealed by the interim report is that 48% of the country’s 1,140 post offices account for just 12% of total business, a sobering reality check about their future viability. The public can help by making a more conscious effort to support their local post office, paying bills there, etc – every transaction, no matter how small, counts.
With An Post generally regarded as a trusted brand, there has to be opportunities out there for diversification, but choosing the right ones will be crucial to their survival. Now is the time for rural groups and individuals who want their post offices to be kept open to engage with the current consultation process.