Reform: Post branch network: law could increase the use of machines

They still exist, the good old post office.

Reform: Post branch network: law could increase the use of machines

They still exist, the good old post office. Slightly hidden at the end of the outside staircase at the Bonner Post headquarters, the yellow sales room is reminiscent of the past: open until 12 noon on Saturdays, otherwise until 5 p.m. The opening times were similarly short in the 90s, when the federal post office was privatized.

So much for the past and present. The future looks different, it can be seen directly in front of the Bonn branch: there is a "post office" - a machine where parcels can be picked up and dropped off, stamps bought and letters posted. In all likelihood, there will be more such machines in the future.

There are 100 postal stations in Germany so far, and the trend is rising. They are in cities like Bonn or Bayreuth and in communities like Bendestorf (Lower Saxony) and Illrieden (Baden-Württemberg). Compared to the 13,000 Packstations, which are only designed for parcels, this type of machine is still in its infancy.

A branch from 2000 inhabitants

The Federal Ministry of Economics recently presented a key issues paper containing proposals for reforming the completely outdated postal law. The law contains obligations that Swiss Post, as a so-called universal service provider, must comply with. The guidelines date back to 1999 - from a time when many Germans still wrote extensively letters and only knew emails from hearsay at best. Since then, it has been stipulated that the post office must have at least one post office in every municipality with more than 2000 inhabitants. If there are more than 4000 inhabitants, the point of sale must not be further away than two kilometers.

Swiss Post has a hard time fulfilling this obligation. According to the Federal Network Agency, there were recently around 140 locations nationwide where the post office should be, but it isn't - a good one percent of the mandatory locations are that. The deficit is often due to the fact that a kiosk or a small supermarket has closed - such shops are valid as a post office if the yellow giant has a counter in it. In the course of structural change in rural areas, more and more retailers are giving up. As a result, Swiss Post has fewer external helpers offering services on its behalf. This puts the group under pressure when it comes to the obligation to have branches.

And now the machines come into play. So far, they have not been relevant to fulfilling the branch network obligation. In the future, however, "digital and automated solutions" should be "appropriately taken into account" as part of the universal service, as stated in the ministry's vaguely formulated key issues paper. Machines that are available at any time could “meet the needs of the users”.

Post is cautious

If vending machines were counted towards the branch requirement in the future, that would make life easier for Swiss Post. It is still unclear how exactly the reform will turn out and how the revised branch obligation will look like. But one thing is clear: the legislator has the vending machine issue on the screen.

Would the change in the law be a step towards a vending machine branch network? A Post spokesman is cautious. On the one hand, he points out that machines have long since become an indispensable part in many areas, for example when buying tickets or withdrawing cash. "In the postal sector, too, it is the case that frequently requested services such as the purchase of postage and parcel stamps or the dispatch of letters and parcels can be handled easily and conveniently using automated equipment." On the other hand, he emphasizes that the company will continue to rely on "person-served formats".

At the same time, they also want to try out hybrid formats, for example machines with advice via video chat. He is referring to the post office, where video consultation should soon be possible.

There are positive signals from the Bundestag about this part of the reform. Such machines make sense for consumers, says Liberal Reinhard Houben. The social democrat Sebastian Roloff is also open, and the CSU politician Hansjörg Durz says that digital progress is not to be opposed. The AfD member Uwe Schulz evaluates digital solutions as "important and necessary".

Social association VdK warns

However, the politicians limit their fundamentally positive attitude. Left-wing Pascal Meiser says digital solutions could "complement the branch network, but in no way replace it if you don't want to exclude entire population groups". Roloff, a member of the SPD, also speaks of an "extension in the branch network" and emphasizes that "a high-quality postal service must be guaranteed in the area". The Christsoziale Durz wants to examine the specific design carefully, "since a personal contact person is still very important for many people".

Criticism of the ministry's proposals comes from the social association VdK. He warns against thinning out the branch network and instead relying more on vending machines. According to a spokesman for the association, these cannot be used by wheelchair users, people of short stature and people with visual impairments. A dense network of branches is important so that everyone can do their postal business independently in the spirit of inclusion. In addition, older people cannot be expected to use the machines because they need advice. The VdK emphasizes that supply close to home is important. The district council is also not very enthusiastic and calls for the previous strategy of cooperation between the post office and traders to be strengthened.

In the reform, a first legislative proposal should be available by the summer, and the amendment could be completed by the end of 2023. Depending on the outcome of the changes, the course could then be set for increased use of postal machines in Germany.