Thursday, 4 October 2007

Are you confused?

I'm sure those of you who are reading this are not confused, at least about Machins. However, it seems that many of Royal Mail's customers are easily confused. During the last few years, Royal Mail has had to reverse some decisions or make changes that were justified by reducing confusion on the part of customers.

First - the 'E' non-denominated stamps

After the success of non-denominated (NVI) stamps for inland mail, Royal Mail extended the practice to stamps for letters to Europe, probably by far the most frequent destination for overseas letters. For the service indicator, Royal Mail chose a capital letter 'E'.

The 'E' Machin, shown above, was introduced in 1998, and other 'E' stamps followed, including commemoratives and country definitives.

Six years later, Royal Mail withdrew the 'E' stamps and replaced them with denominated versions. According to Royal Mail, customers thought the 'E' stood for the euro currency, and no doubt they therefore couldn't figure out how to pay for those stamps since euros are not used in the U.K.

The euro was introduced in January, 2002, so apparently Royal Mail put up with a couple of years of confusion until they gave up (or gave in) and switched the stamps back to denominated versions.

Of course, the universal (or international one-stop) stamp that says "Europe" on it remains available (apparently it is not confusing), but this is used for letters up to 40 grams and is an overpayment if used on a letter weighing under 20 grams. So we have the odd situation that the second weight step is payable by a non-denominated stamp but the first weight step is not.

Second - the large service indicators for Pricing in Proportion

Last year Royal Mail introduced its Pricing in Proportion scheme which based the cost of mailing on size as well as weight. As most of you know better than I, there are three types of items - letters, large letters and packages. I sometimes call the smaller items "standard letters" so that there is no, well, confusion about what I am describing.

Royal Mail decided that there would be non-denominated stamps for the first weight steps for both standard letters and large letters, and for both first-class and second-class service for both these items. That would mean a total of four NVI stamps.

Royal Mail introduced large stamps for this purpose - Machins that were the same height as usual but wider, yielding a horizontal orientation. In addition, the service indicator was enlarged and moved to the upper left and the word "Large" was placed on the lower portion of the stamp. The second-class blue stamp to the left is one of the two that were issued, the other being a first-class gold version.

All well and good, so far. However, the problem was that Royal Mail also redesigned the NVI's for standard letters so that they, too, had the large service indicator at the upper left. The size of the stamp remained the same as before.

The new stamp is in the middle of the trio above. Its predecessor, the original NVI design, in use since 1989, is on the left.

Royal Mail apparently figured that the mail users would understand "large stamp with the word Large for large letters and smaller stamp for (small) standard letters."

Apparently this was not easy to understand. Earlier this year, Royal Mail said its patrons were confused. They thought that the large numeral on the small stamp meant that it could be used for a large letter.

So, on June 5 of this year, Royal Mail began replacing the big numeral/small stamp with its predecessor, going back to the original design for standard letters.

I call this "back to the future." And perhaps it taught Royal Mail a lesson, because there was no good reason to change the existing NVI's in the first place.

Third - similar colors for 50p and 1st NVI

In 1990, the 50p Machin was changed to the Matthews color sand, from its previous similar ochre color. The 50p is one of the basic denominations that stays on sale, so this stamp remained available.

In 1997, Royal Mail changed the color of first-class Machins to metallic gold in honor of the Queen's Golden Wedding Anniversary. Both the then-current 26p and the 1st NVI were changed. At the end of the year, the gold stamps were withdrawn.

In 2002, Royal Mail again introduced the metallic gold color, this time to honor the 50th anniversary of the Queen's accession. There were no longer any denominated stamps for the first weight step of first-class service, so it was only the 1st NVI that was affected. This color has been in use since then.

Earlier this year, after five years of having both the sand color and the metallic gold color co-exist, Royal Mail changed the color of the 50p stamp to light grey. The reason given was that the color of the 50p was too much like the gold color of the NVI.

Both stamps are shown above. The scanned images do look very similar. However, the gold stamp is metallic - very shiny - and the real NVI stamp looks very different from the 50p.

At least I think so. However, apparently, the stamp-using public does not. The only question is whether it really took people several years to become confused, or whether Royal Mail simply procrastinated when faced with the need to change the color of the 50p.

So there we have it. Confusion reigns among the stamp-buying public. Caveat emptor.


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