Wednesday, 24 June 2015

A tourist guide to Royal Mail for small ecommerce shops & web developers

Introduction: Royal Mail for ecommerce

picture of a letter box
A frustration of using ecommerce software in the UK or outside the US is that so few web developers write a postage module for the simplest basic postal service. They don't even write a tablequote kit so that a shopkeeper can fill-in a managable small table of their own prices for zones and weights, like this:
  • UK - where a 2nd class 2kg parcel can be posted for £2.80 and there is a 2.5cm "large letter size" that goes cheaper up to 750g
  • "Europe" with a fiddly "UK zone B" for the Channel Islands, and 64 other countries
  • "Worldwide Zone 1", which is everything else except
  • "Worldwide Zone 2" with 34 countries.
    The zones outside the UK have detailed price / weight tables.
    There is a table further down this page for converting Royal Mail's names to ISO country codes.
I tried to change one shopping cart module so that "Afghanestan" became UK, "Andorra" became Europe, "American Samoa" bacame Worldwide Zone 1, and "Aruba" became Worldwide Zone 2. It felt like being Napoleon without the war crimes, but I didn't quite manage to make it work. Recently, I've discovered that the Drupal Ubercart module imports a country once and then keeps the name on the database. If you can find the right program on the control panel of your web host to poke into the database, sufficient trial and error brings you to the names of countries which you can change by hand to anything you like.

I wished that someone used-to modules and code could have done it for me. Maybe the shopping cart developers think "I'll make a living selling add-ons on commission, and someone is bound to write a Royal Mail add-on". Then module developers look at Royal Mail's web site with all its complicated extra services like franking, and its whimsical change, and decide not to write a module. Nobody wants to get caught between a sprawling set of services that can change at any time, and an irate customer who has only paid £10 for a module but expects some kind of support.

From what I can see of other post offices' web sites in Europe, they follow the same pattern of a few world zones priced by weight, with a fixed size and price for 0-2kg parcels that they like to post on home ground, plus letters, large letters, and sprawling web sites with loads of decoy mail services that no sane person would use, special jargon words like "docket", trademarked premium services such as Like-To-Pay-More ® - all sorts of things. Names like "delivered ®" or"here to there with a stamp on ®" are common. Big courier web sites are similar. I've just found another page where emergency closures and delays are listed There seem always to be more pages to find.
Puzzling trademark ®
Large-scale UK shopkeepers or their warehouse contractors will know the kaleidoscope of  prices & services; they will simply tell a developer what they want. They may even know what franking machines are good for. This page isn't for large-scal shopkeepers. This page is just is a tourist guide to every-day Royal Mail services for individuals, ebayers, stallholders, crafters, smaller-scale shopkeepers, and developers who write for them. The stuff that ebay sellers and shopkeepers have picked-up just by living in the UK and hope that software developers around the world will happen to know too. They might post in a forum or send you an email. This is what they take for granted.

I've just watched a video that says "we live in an Amazon world. The customers' expectation is 2 days". But the bloke says this in front of a graph saying that customers are content for the first week, even in the US where people seem to expect chinese goods sold on a huge shop margin. People know that they can't download physical goods and have them now. He also says "fight with your suppliers", which could be why his goods turned-up late.

I've got a shortlist of shopping carts on another post: Most don't help much with shipping or even hinder in order to sell you an over-priced module. Individuals are offered a kaleidoscope of options from Royal Mail, that seem to overwhelm the people who try to make the clear on Royal Mail's web site let alone the people who have to read all this detail. Most of these prices and services are decoys designed to charge more for the person who doesn't care how much something costs. Basically Royal Mail sends 2nd Class 0-2kg Small Parcels to the UK at a fixed price for delivery in 3-5 working days and airmail to three other world zones with a table of prices by wieght. Simple as that. Other shopkeepers might have other favourite services like the 2.5cm thick large letter, but probably not many more. The prices are low for everyone. The only discounts are 0.5% cashback on some visa / mastercards held in individuals' names, (no Amex) and lower prices for bulk sorted mail to Royal Mail direct or some companies that feed-in to their sorting offices.
  • You might think that Royal Mail would offer to write modules for free. No.
  • You might think that the Department for Business and its drive would make sure it's easy, given that the taxpayer still owns most of Royal Mail and the Department for Business is there to sort-out market failures, but no.There are now several departments for business or for economic development, because devolution is fashionable, and any one of these development agencies or departments could do a bit of lobbying or funding, but no.
  • You might hope that the people who write shopping cart software would make it easy, but no: they're often based in the USA and get tied-up in obscure US tax rates before they have time to think about obscure non-US post offices. Sometimes they are the sort of people who buy a T-shirt by UPS. Americans can be like that.

 Zones - Royal Mail has 4 of them plus the fiddley Channel Islands.
Royal Mail has 4 world zones: UK including Isle of Mann and Northern Ireland (with a fiddley exception for the channel islands - a tiny extra zone), Europe, Worldwide Zone 1 and Worldwide Zone 2.
It's rather hard work for the shopkeeper to attach prices by weight to every single country, and for the customer to choose a country from a long alphabetical list including countries like Aruba and American Samoa which I only discovered from these lists. A module to assemble these countries into 4 zones for a table quote by price or weight might be enough of the job done to get your software company a hug from a UK merchant, or their business anyway.
(There used to be a cheap and green rate for surface mail outside the UK that could 3 months to New Zealand. A vestige survives in "economy" mail, but it is only a few pence cheaper usually; there is more or less one price now to most places. I guess that container-size loads are still be sent privately that way.)
Highlands and Islands postcodes can attract a fuel surcharge on contract prices while courier quotes can be slower or more expensive. I haven't come-across this myself; it doesn't apply to the rate that most people pay.
Northern Ireland is in the UK postal zone.. Royal Mail and Parcelforce couriers are the same company and you'll probably get the same postal zone for Parcelforce too.

Zones - ISO country names to Royal Mail country names

I've asked Royal Mail for this list, then found that it's in the source code of a Drupal module which I don't know how to use any other way for Ubercart. I installed and used FTP to find the right file and read it in a text editor from the drupal/sites/all/modules/rmzone/ . There are probably similar modules for programs like Abantecart or Prestashop or Cubecart and the rest which can be read in a similar way.

    'AL', // Albania
    'AD', // Andorra
    'AM', // Armenia
    'AT', // Austria
    'AZ', // Azerbaijan
    // Belearic Islands: Spain
    'BY', // Belarus
    'BE', //Belgium
    'BA', // Bosnia Herzegovina
    'BG', // Bulgaria
    // Canary Islands: Spain
    // Corsica's French
    'HR', // Croatia
    'CY', // Cyprus
    'CZ', // Czech Republic
    'DK', // Denmark
    'EE', // Estonia
    'FO', // Faroe Islands
    'SF', // Finland
    'FR', // France
    'GE', // Georgia
    'DE', // Germany
    'GI', // Gibraltar
    'GR', // Greece
    'GL', // Greenland
    'HU', // Hungary
    'IS', // Iceland
    'IE', // Irish Republic
    'IT', // Italy
    'KZ', // Kazakhstan
    // Kosovo doesn't have an agreed code, and Drupal's doesn't include it.
    'KG', // Kyrgyzstan
    'LV', // Latvia
    'LI', // Liechtenstein
    'LT', // Lithuania
    'LU', // Luxembourg
    'MK', // Macedonia
    // Madeira: Portugal
    'MT', // Malta
    'MD', // Moldova
    'MC', // Monaco
    'ME', // Montenegro
    'NL', // Netherlands
    'NO', // Norway
    'PL', // Poland
    'PT', // Portugal
    'RO', // Romania
    'RU', // Russia
    'SM', // San Marino
    'RS', // Serbia
    'SK', // Slovakia
    'SI', // Slovenia
    'ES', // Spain
    'SE', // Sweden
    'CH', // Switzerland
    'TJ', // Tajikistan
    'TR', // Turkey
    'TM', // Turkmenistan
    'UA', // Ukraine
    'UZ', // Uzbekistan
    'VA', // Vatican City State

The software doesn't list zone 1: it's everything but the others.

 * Returns a list of countries in the Royal Mail zone: World zone 2. Note that
 * there seem to be two islands that are part of the Norwegian Antarctic
 * Territory that don't have ISO 3166-1 codes: Peter I Island and Queen Maud
 * Land.
 * @see
 * @see
 */ replaces the iso decoding table mantioned above
with this explanation

    'AU', // Australia
    'PW', // Belau
    'IO', // British Indian Ocean Territory
    'CX', // Christmas Island (Indian Ocean)
    // Christmas Island (Pacific Ocean)
    'CC', // Cocos Islands
    'CK', // Cook Island
    // Coral Sea Island: Australia
    'FJ', // Fiji
    'PF', // French Polynesia
    'TF', // French South Antarctic Territory
    // Keeling: Cocos Islands
    'KI', // Kiribati
    'MO', // Macao
    'NR', // Nauru Island
    'NC', // New Caledonia
    'NZ', // New Zealand
    // New Zealand Antarctic Territory: New Zealand
    'NU', // Niue Island
    'NF', // Norfolk Island
    'BV', // Norwegian Antarctic Territory (NB this excludes Peter I Island and
    // Queen Maud Land, which don't have ISO codes - see
    'PG', // Papua New Guinea
    'LA', // People's Democratic Republic of Laos
    'PN', // Pitcairn Island
    'SG', // Republic of Singapore
    'SB', // Solomon Islands
    // Tahiti: French Polynesia
    'TK', // Tokelau Island
    'TO', // Tonga
    'TV', // Tuvalu
    'AS', // US Samoa
    'WS', // Western Samoa

UK private couriers for parcels over 2kg
lists sites that sell pre-paid labels for private courier services. There is an ever-changing kaleidoscope of services including obscure shop-to-shop services, shop-to-door, and the upmarket quick and signed-for ones, and a locker-based one which may accept your returns and not loose them forever with luck. The rule of thumb is that they are cheaper for parcels over 2kg and offer tracking. Everybody knows this except the one person  at the front of every post office queue who asks very slowly "how much would 2.1kg to Aruba be? - oh, that seems a lot. Does it include tracking?".

Private couriers are unlikely to become cheaper for 2kg parcels because their staff don't do a delivery round down the street; they drive from street to street delivering a parcel here and a parcel there, ringing a doorbell for each one and most likely leaving half their parcels with neighbours when customers are not in. They also miss a VAT tax break that Royal Mail enjoys (in exchange for delivering all-over the UK for one price). Their best known services involve two van-parking and doorbell-ringing trips because people are used to them collecting as well as delivering, while Royal Mail only collects sacks; you have to go to a post office and drop-off your parcels or use a letter box.

The courier that comes closest to Royal Mail prices is a cheapskate operation in handling standards, delivery speed, and pay scales. They encourage recipients to suggest a porch or safe place where a parcel can be left late at night or while the customer is out, but customers ignore this, just as they ignore services like CollectPlus and UPS collection points which allow them to pick-up a product at a local shop. Customers prefer to sit at home and grumble that the courier didn't come when hoped-for. The service is better value and quicker if you drop-off parcels at one of their agents, which are places like newsagents and garages that can give a receipt and keep a parcel for the daily collection. Maybe in a few years more people will be used to picking-up parcels at places like this as well as dropping-off.
There is a consensus that £30kg is about the most that a single courier with a trolly and a van can carry, and the usual maximum size is 56cm x 46cm x 36cm. Pallets cost more again. Rolls and matrasses are hard to shift. Worldwide container shipping is another market again.

Addressing - no need for counties or bar codes for Royal Mail
Within the UK, the administrative list of areas isn't used by Royal Mail nor couriers; there's no need to ask the customer their county or any local government area from any drop-down list, nor worry about whether an area is part of  "greater london", or "london". Just leave-out the whole process of selecting an area. There is a Royal Mail recommendation to write the post-town, in capital letters, to help sort mail where the postcode is wrong or illegible, but it's not necessary. If you do want to add an optional area to an address, use post towns if you can find a way, or a paid-for module that gets the customer to match an address and postcode from Royal Mail's database. does the same thing by hand - if you want to double check an address - and is free for a limited number of searches per period.

Customers have a number or name for each letterbox, and a postcode. Just write anything sensible in between if you want, as any address format is accepted. When pushed, Royal Mail say they need a "thoroughfare" next to the number or name of the letterbox, again as a backup.
John Smith,  Deputy Assistant Director of Dockets, Northern Irish Grant Artist Federation,
address and thoroughfare - on one or more lines
Unit 1 Grant Artist House, Verycranky Trading Estate, Long Road, Verycranky, Antrim
last line postcode

John Smith, Rose Cottage Rose Lane, AN1 1AB would be another example

I often see bar codes on large-scale mailings of bills. I don't know if there is any way to use them to get tracking thrown-in to the price. For smaller scale mailings, any clear typeface works well. Mail very seldom gets lost if the address is clear; I can't remember the last time. Automated scanners are replacing more of the hand-sorting at sorting office for pacels now, just as they did years ago for letters. gives more detail for larger customers, with astrisks next to the typefaces they suggest for printing but are unable to print themselves. Do you miss working for big organisations like this? No? It's good that somebody still works for them. They also ignore their own advice on the software that lets you print and pay-for postage online. It uses a sans-serif font with the kerning reduced so that letters merge into each other, and prints on a grey patterned background like a watermark.
Bold fonts must not be used. Recommended fonts as follows. Arial 10-12pt, Avant Garde 11-15, Century School Book 10-11, Courier 10-15, Courier new 10-15, Frankfurt Gothic 10-12, Franklin Gothic (Book) 11-14, Geneva 10-12, Helvetica 10-14, Letter Gothic 12, Lucida Console 12, Lucidea Sans Typewriter 12, Monaco 12, News Gothic MT 10-12, OCR B 12, Univers 10-15, Verdana 10-12,

Pricing & paying:
UK 2nd class 2kg parcels have one price; 3 zones of weight tables ex-UK
Proof of postage is free but fiddly and effects the system to use:
online / drop&go
..quote dozens of sizes weights and services in a format called "handyguide.pdf" that changes at whim year to year; the Royalmailtechnical web has released a spreadsheet, but only for large scale services so far and the firm refused to publish a clear spreadsheet of prices in the past. is a route into is a new shorter form to do the same thing:
print a stamp and address from an address and postcode, and tell you a clear price if you don't buy. It can also import addresses, but only from ebay according to the help page. Ebay and Paypal also have a system of printing-out pre-paid addresses on your home printer without going to the Royal Mail web site.

Royal Mail no longer has a cash-on-delivery service, even for the annoying packages priced at over £15 that arrive from outside the EU and so have a tarrif plus VAT tax plus collection fee to pay.
Online postal payment systems demonstrate the pointlessness of weighing your post and printing a stamp with an expensively hired and serviced machine from approved suppliers. There is a small discount on franked post for no reason except to keep this pointless industry going and after a brief experiment I decided that no discount is worth the trouble.
The first /pricefinder url gives more information about sizes: Second class 1-2kg small parcels are the best value, along with letters and a thing called a large letter which is 2.5cm thick. There's probably some way of getting a robot on the customers' computer to transfer names, postcodes, and first lines of addresses onto the online postage page but no need. You can also put  pre-stamped mail in letter boxes or drop it in a sack without queing a lot of post offices. Most of them are independent franchises and capable of ignoring instructions from head office about whether to leave an open sack on your side of the counter for dropping-off mail.

Tracking is only available on expensive signed-for services, so proof of posting can be important. You have to queue-up and ask for proof of postage, which the staff do for no fee by printing-out a receipt for £0 showing the destination of the parcel. If you use ebay's Paypal postage, the old Certificate of Posting system survives, which is rubber-stamped and squiggled at the counter. Staff are polite about doing this work for no money and other systems may survive for proof of posting several parcels. They used to hide blank certificate of posting forms, though, to discourage people from using them.
is run by Post Office Counters and tried to integrate charging and reports into Royal Mail's web site, without success; it's still a manual system and the Royal Mail side of the firm have introduced a simlar one in competition. Anyway, shopkeepers can open an account, then then jump the queue at a post ofice branch and leave addressed parcels to have stamps stuck-on by the staff who's branch makes a small profit on them. Happy post office. May remain open. They can print form headed "manifest" on which to list postcodes and addresses for them to stamp as proof of postage. It's possible to download the form as a pdf and to made it editable so that you can cut-and paste the three columns of 2nd class / street number / address that are most used.
Free collections at the ground floor exist for sacks, or more precisely "free weekly collections for customers who spend over £15,000 a year with us". If you only send the cheapest £2.80 parcels, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, that's nearly 22 parcels a working day. Comments on message boards say that the £15,000 limit isn't strictly enforced, and of course the customers who opt of for first class or export parcels will reduce the minimum number, as will use of a specialist pick-and-pack mailing warehouse in some cheap part of the UK, or collaboration with one or two neigbouring firms to collect shared mail from the ground floor: I don't know if there's a way to make that work.

Bulk customers can get small discounts for doing some of the sorting but I don't know how much that takes-away from the benefit of having a sack of mixed mail collected. They also have a long pre-computerised tradition which may still have its odd jargon or options for manual book-keeping. I don't know what a "docket book" is for example, but they do.

Royal Mail's Europe zone is very large, including non-EU countries like Ukraine for which a customs sticker is needed and possibly a tariff paid by the recipient.

Neighbouring post offices that speak English -
Netherlands,  Ireland, Channel Islands, Isle of Mann

Anyone who writes about how Royal Mail works has to mention the Isle of Mann and Channel Islands. So why not write about a couple of bigger neighbours first? These two speak english. or serves the Netherlands, a country of 16.8 million mercantile & well-educated people next to the UK's 61 million people. I think people in the main dutch towns often do business in English by default; a client's IT department is likely to accept sales contacts English, with Dutch and Flemish more common at home, in the country, or when buying rather than selling. Signs at Schipol Airport are all in English. I don't live in the Netherlands and might have got this wrong, but the main postal service seems to be for 3.5cm "letterbox size" 0-2kg parcels delivered cheaply in Holland or the Benelux countries, with another zone for Europe and I think another for "world".

Cash on delivery is available. That's different to the UK.
Online stamping and addressing isn't obviously available. I might have missed it. own the TNT Post courier service in other countries, and briefly tried doing a door-to-door delivery round in parts of London, as well as touting for the sack collection trade under the name Door-to-door delivery staff were made redundant with zero warning, but UK sack collection continues with a minimum of 250 items per collection. for the Republic of Ireland's 4.6m people is like in using €uro & speaking english. Fewer Irish people speak other languages than in most countries of the world I guess, but politicians have diverted resources from social insurance, including education and health, into making sure that, should people suddenly start speaking Gaelic all at once in the future, pubic services will be ready for them. That's the sort of thing that politicians do with your social insurance payments if you don't watch the bastards. Signs at Dublin Airport are in Gaelic and English, as at Knock airport, where you can go to see the miracle of priests evading prosecution for false statements or worse. It's a great place to visit in other ways though: living there is the problem and unfortunately, UK politicians are picking-up these tricks just as Irish ones try to get rid of them.

ANPost collects sacks from senders of 30 parcels a more a week outside Dublin - and an unstated amount inside - and from post offices and letter boxes in the southern Irish counties. says that collection services outside the republic have been sold-off.
ANPost delivery price zones are Ireland - north is the same price, GB, Europe, World.
ANPost addressing guide is at
There is no online address and stamp printing service, but large customers can use a machine for printing normal-looking stamps and a database of addresses can be hired.
The pointless franking industry survives in Ireland as in the UK, with small discounts and perhaps some purpose for the bulk mailers.

Just recently I had a parcel returned as insuffiently addressed to putting two lines together and ommitting the new postcode; I don't know which triggured the return, but they now use postcodes slightly longer than the UK ones, so best to check from their site what's happening. It will suggest a printed format in roman letters that's hard to cut and paste into your own software, but there is bound to be a way.

I don't think they've got up to the UK / Canada pattern of six letters and numbers. Counties are named after the county town, so you can leave out "County Limerick" if the town is "Limerick".

The Channel Islands' 164,000 people use UK currency in three independent EU states, sharing some services like embassies with the UK. They do not have a Channel Islands postal service. They have two:
E-commerce is a regular business in the Channel Islands.
For a while this meant that you could sell your ebay items from a Channel Islands warehouse and not pay VAT. More recenlty the state-owned Royal Mail has added a separate "sub zone" price to all mail from the UK to the Channel Islands, and all goods from the channel islands now have to pay UK VAT on entry - not just goods valued under the usual £15 threshold.

The Isle of Mann's is a separate post office for the 80,000 people who live there. The island has its own EU government and tax rates but shares the UK pound while its post office seems to share the same postal zones of UK, Europe, and world. Like AMPost, it offers signage in Gaelic. Letters cost less to send than from the Royal Mail; parcels more.

Gibralter's serves 30,000 people in the EU who speak English first and have regular air deliveries of mail to the UK & US as well as land deliveries via Spain.
Other neighbouring countries have english-language post office web pages and english-speaking clients, but I don't live in any of them or have any off-the-cuff knowledge to add to what you find. In Europe, the northern countries and those with coastlines are the more mercantile but have worse weather. I guess that most have a handful of world zones priced by weight and a favourite size of 2kg parcel that they like posting so much that they do it very cheaply.

Oh here's a thing. The Italian post office is not yet as reliable as the others - see Time Out Guides, Rough Guide, Lonely Planet, or google phrases like "ex pat guide to life in..." for details about the Italian post office and whether it has got any better. Items I send to Italy are more often delayed than to other countries, although they turn-up in the end. An ebay seller might choose "everywhere in the EU but Italy" as a choice for where to post.

I began by writing about Royal Mail and neighbouring services as though you were selling your software at a trade show in the UK. The Indian post office is further away and different in pricing for more different weights and countries. It serves a population of 1252 million.


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