Magazine article Marketing

Counter Revolution at the Post Office

Magazine article Marketing

Counter Revolution at the Post Office

Article excerpt

Heard the one about the Dodo found waiting in a Post Office queue? Dick Wheelhouse reckons the joke's over. Suzanne Bidlake's finds out why

Europe's biggest retailer -- yes, the one you think of as inefficient, with mile-long queues and surly staff -- is about to undergo a metamorphosis.

From its shell it is hoped a non-bureaucratic operation will emerge, with unrivalled service and branches in which tellers behind glass are replaced with friendly assistants at desks. Oh, and it'll have a new brand identity. You'll hardly know you're in a Post Office.

Refurbishments are set to cost |pounds~50m over the next five years. Already new brand identities created by design companies Coley Porter Bell and Newell and Sorrell are on test internally.

The new look finally chosen will be launched right across the network, from fascias on the outlets to headed stationery.

At the same time, like all major retailers, the PO is keen to develop an own-label -- to bring it greater profitability and drive its image upwards. Already it is testing own-brand stationery in its Post Shops.

It sounds a mammoth task. But that's only half of it. Changing is one thing. Convincing consumers that it's more than a superficial lick of paint is quite another for an organisation dogged for years by a reputation for inefficiency.

"We used to be a music hall joke for our queues," admits Dick Wheelhouse, commercial director of the PO's retail arm, PO Counters, and the man responsible for the marketing turnaround.

"Now we know 96% of our customers are served within five minutes. But people's perception still drags behind the reality." He sits, grinning, a chubbier, healthier-looking Peter Cook.

But surely people are served more quickly these days because they now buy everything the PO used to have a monopoly on from elsewhere? Postal orders and some philatelic merchandise are the only products for which the PO is still the sole retailer. Still grinning, Wheelhouse says: "You see there's another mis-perception -- that we lose business. Only 5% of stamps' volume is sold outside the PO (from 20,000 other outlets) and overall our transactions have increased by 14% to 42 million in the past five years."

The clock is ticking as Counters revamps

He has a point. As Europe's biggest retailer, Counters commands a |pounds~1.1bn turnover. But his point only serves to highlight the marketing challenge he faces. And the time in which to create a new impression is ticking away: Counters is desperate to grab a share of the National Lottery distribution, and the business is also staring possible privitisation in the face.

Wheelhouse, 47, a one-time rock musician and postman turned management course lecturer and high-flying PO director, cannot deny it. Nor would he want to. His enthusiasm for the job is abundant and he is visibly excited at the task before him.

Or rather, before the managers of the 20,000 PO outlets nationwide.

For the cornerstone in Counters' new strategy is a structural overhaul, which this summer has created a slimmed-down headquarters, plus three business units (Wheelhouse heads one) and has driven "empowerment" down to individual branch manager level.

"We want to get a stronger customer focus at the sharp end of the business -- we want the management pyramid the other way up so that the most important part is where we serve customers."

Teamwork, empowerment, listening, appraisal of management by staff, everyone equal in meetings, silence denotes agreement. …

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