With Christmas visits strictly limited this year, many of us are set to send parcels containing gifts to family and friends.
Traditionally this meant wandering down to the post office – and, at this time of the year, probably standing in a queue. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Royal Mail recently launched a parcel pickup service across the UK, so you don’t even need to leave the house to use its service. Or you can bypass it altogether: there are dozens of parcel delivery and courier firms out there, from household names to smaller players, and in some cases these will be significantly cheaper.
Some will be more convenient, too – for example, you may have the option of being able to drop off your parcel at your local corner shop, leave it in a nearby locker for collection or have a courier come and collect it.
Guardian Money carried out a price test this week (see below) and found that Royal Mail was often competitive but could be beaten in some cases by players such as the parcel locker provider InPost and the delivery company Hermes.
With many people having reluctantly decided that they won’t be seeing family members over the festive period, Royal Mail is saying that for parcel deliveries “this Christmas is expected to outstrip prior years’ festive peaks”.
It has shaken things up with its new Parcel Collect service, where postmen and postwomen can collect up to five parcels from your door for 72p each in addition to normal postage costs. The service operates Monday to Saturday and can be booked up to midnight the day before. Customers first need to pay the correct postage online, input the recipient and sender details, and print out a pre-paid label. There is a maximum size and weight.
Martin Lewis’s MoneySavingExpert website says there are a huge number of variables when it comes to parcel delivery – destination, weight, size, drop-off or collection, delivery speed, etc – but that for a small item weighing less than 1kg, “Royal Mail usually wins”. However, for items heavier than that, courier firms are usually cheapest.
The site says that when it tested 10 examples this year, it found Royal Mail was cheaper for parcels under 1kg on seven occasions. When it looked at items weighing more than 1kg, a courier firm beat Royal Mail on eight out of the 10 occasions.
First, check the cost of going with Royal Mail by using its online price-finder tool. Prices to send parcels in the UK start from £3.10 for standard second class (for a weight up to 2kg), for delivery in two to three working days, and from £3.70 for first class (up to 1kg), where the aim is next-day delivery. Those prices are for a small parcel. Size matters with parcels – to find out more, go to royalmail.com/sending/uk.
If it is a smallish, light item such as a DVD or slim paperback, you may be able to get under the wire of Royal Mail’s large-letter format (an envelope measuring up to 35.3cm x 25cm x 2.5cm and weighing up to 750g), which costs 88p for standard second class up to 100g, or £1.40 up to 250g.
You will be presented with a dizzying array of options: standard, signed for, guaranteed to arrive by a certain time, tracked, etc, so if shopping around make sure you are comparing like with like.
Once you know what Royal Mail would charge, then get a quote from a courier comparison website or broker. This is a much better bet than going to the individual courier firms, as some of those appear to be more geared up for dealing with businesses than individual consumers. Also, some of the comparison sites and brokers reportedly buy spare delivery slots from the big courier firms and then sell them cheaply.
There are lots of comparison sites out there, including Parcel Monkey, ParcelCompare, ParcelHero, My Parcel Delivery, ParcelsPlease, Worldwide Parcel Services and Postage Supermarket. The one that claims to be the UK’s largest and cheapest is Parcel2Go, with prices starting from £2.34.
Hermes – the UK’s second-biggest parcel firm after Royal Mail – scored well on cost in our test. It says its prices start from £2.45. Hermes offers three ways to send a parcel: you can take it to one of its 5,000-plus ParcelShops, drop it off at one of its 900 or so lockers or have it collected from your home.
Other courier firms that tend to come up a lot on the comparison sites include UPS, DHL, TNT, DPD, DX and CitySprint.
However, the cheapest in our test was InPost, a delivery firm that allows you to drop off items at a parcel locker. It says its prices start from £3.16 for delivery to your recipient “within two to three working days” (you pay more for next-day delivery), although its cheapest price in our test was actually £2.34. Its lockers can be found outside places such as Lidl supermarkets and petrol stations. The maximum size accepted is 38cm x 38cm x 64cm.
What about service?
It’s not all about price.
The consumer body Which? asked more than 13,000 of its members about their experiences with major couriers between March and August this year. This related to online purchases from retailers rather than sending gifts but the results – published this month – are still useful.
Which? claims UPS “was consistently the worst courier for keeping customers satisfied across key categories”. By contrast, DPD was rated best for communication with customers and delivery time slots offered. Royal Mail, meanwhile, had the most satisfied customers in the category relating to where the delivery driver left their parcel.
Last posting dates
for Royal Mail these are: second class and second-class signed for, 18 December; first class, first-class signed for and Tracked 48, 21 December; Tracked 24, 22 December; special delivery guaranteed, 23 December.
Meanwhile, Parcel2Go has rounded up the last posting dates for many of the leading courier firms on its website. Like Royal Mail, most couriers have a service that will accept parcels right up to 23 December for delivery on Christmas Eve.
We checked prices* for sending two parcels to UK mainland addresses. One package was fairly small, the other a bit bigger and heavier. We obtained prices for Royal Mail using its price-finder tool (using its new Parcel Collect service would cost an extra 72p for each parcel). Then we tried the Parcel2Go site and crosschecked the results with other comparison sites.
• A small parcel: two DVDs wrapped up together and sealed in a large envelope (22cm x 17cm x 3.5cm. Weight: 230g).
The Royal Mail site gave 16 different options, the cheapest of which was £3.95 for signed-for second class. That was the online price – the price at a post office was £4.10. We said the items’ value was between £20 and £50. If we had said less than £20, we would have been able to send it standard second or first class, with prices starting at £2.95.
The Parcel2Go site did not ask many questions and came up with 39 options. The cheapest was the parcel locker provider InPost, which quoted £2.34 without protection or £2.58 with £20 protection. Close behind was the delivery firm Hermes with its ParcelShop drop-off service at £2.70 or £2.89. In both cases this was for two to three working days’ delivery. Hermes’ courier home collection service came in at £3.40 or £3.61, although this was for delivery within three to five working days.
• A bigger parcel: the board game Articulate!, carefully wrapped up (28cm x 28cm x 9.5cm. Weight: 1.28kg).
The Royal Mail site again produced 16 options, the cheapest of which was £3.95/£4.10 for signed-for second class. Another option was tracked delivery in two to three days for £4.74. The game cost £22. If we had said the value was less than £20, we would have been able to send it standard second or first class from £2.95.
Parcel2Go came up with 36 options and InPost again came out cheapest at £2.88 or £2.94. Then it was Hermes’ ParcelShop service at £4.06 or £4.20. For both, it was delivery within two to three working days. Hermes’ courier collection service came in at £4.57 or £4.91 (three to five working days).
* All prices quoted here include VAT where applicable
How workers are treated
Dismal conditions, low pay, no breaks and job insecurity … spare a thought for the delivery worker at the sharp end of the Christmas parcel boom.
Last December the Guardian’s sister paper, the Observer, tracked a 46-year-old delivery worker as he struggled with his daily target of 220 parcels. Although in legal terms he was self-employed and running his own business, the courier firm was constantly remotely monitoring and pressuring him to meet its targets.
Some may take the view that one reason to use Royal Mail is that at least it is unionised.
Websites such as Indeed.co.uk host scores of adverts for courier delivery jobs, many promising pay of £200 a day. But these earnings are far from guaranteed, as virtually every ad insists that the worker must operate on a self-employed or contractor basis.
Reviews left by former workers at some of these companies tell a different story about earnings. “Working long days, start at 8am, finish at 8pm if you’re lucky, six days a week for £200 a week – that is without paying any tax or national insurance. This company has become rich making its workers poor,” said one reviewer about a company on the site.
So how can you ensure your parcel won’t be delivered by workers toiling under grim conditions? Unfortunately, there is no easy way of telling – most companies appear to operate using gig-economy employment methods. There have been some bits of good news: in March the delivery group Hermes won praise when it said it would pay its self-employed couriers if they were told to self-isolate because of coronavirus, despite not normally providing sick pay.
There are some companies that claim to be ethical and green but this is largely down to the carbon emissions from their fleets, not working conditions. And, given that many self-employed delivery workers are encouraged to use their own vehicles, monitoring emissions precisely is near impossible.
Unfortunately, this is one sector where it is possible to give a best buy on price but a lot more tricky when it comes to employment standards or sustainability.