The government has announced a much welcome £1.3bn investment to modernise the Post Office network. There will be changes to 6,000 branches over the next three years designed to halt the decline in Post Office branch numbers. However, a report from Consumer Focus warns that the idea still has teething problems.
Modernisation plan: Post Office Locals
Following the Post Office closure programme everyone is well aware that the network needs modernising to put it on a more financially sustainable footing.
The Post Office provides vital services for older people. In many areas the Post Office provides the only access to postal and financial services that are close to people’s homes.
Part of the investment plan will see 2,000 branches revamped as Post Office “Locals”. In these branches Post Office services will no longer be at a dedicated counter but offered from a main retail counter in existing premises.
The Local will provide a core range of services, which are regularly used by Post Office customers. The focus is on quick and easy services at the counter, which means more complex services, such as paying paper-based bills or parcel pick-up services, will not be available.
In many cases existing Post Offices will be converted to this new model, but it could also mean Post Office service popping up in petrol stations, convenience stores or even the local pub.
Making sure it works for consumers
Consumer Focus research has looked at the consumer experience in the 105 pilot Post Office Locals, which are already operating. Their findings show both risks and opportunities in this new way of providing Post Office services.
On the one hand the report notes that longer opening hours and the convenient location of the stores was seen to be popular with customers. This is good news as convenient access to Post Offices is of particular concern to older people – an Age UK survey found 18% of older people currently find it difficult to get to their Post Office.
However, Consumer Focus reported there were a number of experiences reported by customers that need to be taken into account before the model is rolled out further:
- Products and services range: One in five say Locals offer only some or few of the products they need.
- Privacy for personal or sensitive transactions: Over a third of users find the privacy of Post Office Locals to be poor and 41% say it is worse than in traditional Post Offices.
- Reliable and consistent services: The mystery shopper research found a Second Class letter was sold correctly in only one in five transactions.
- Cash withdrawals: There were incidents where a cap was put on the amount of cash or benefits a consumer can withdraw.
Some of these points correlate with concerns older people already have with Post Office services. For instance, in an Age UK survey about existing Post Office services 21% would like more privacy at the counter.
The investment programme has to be seen as an opportunity to maintain universal access to Post Office services. There is still time for these issues to be ironed out to make sure consumers get the best results from the change.
None of these concerns are insurmountable, but it does need the Post Office to act on the findings.
Last year, Age UK helped 500,000 people put £120million back in their pockets through free benefits information and advice. This year, we will continue to break down the barriers that prevent people from claiming, in particular older people not realising that they are eligible for some additional income. For more information, please visit www.ageuk.org.uk/moremoney