The impact of postal and rail strikes on UK small businesses
Posted: Wed 14th Dec 2022
Railway staff and Royal Mail employees are among the UK workers taking industrial action this winter with the resulting cancellations and delays having a big impact on many small businesses.
We asked some founders to tell us how they are being affected by the strikes and what they are doing to deal with it.
This post also acts as a guide to small businesses you can support during your shopping for gifts this Christmas and beyond.
Ruth Bradford, Enterprise Nation member and founder, The Little Black & White Book Project (black and white white baby books and flash cards):
"I'm lucky so far that my customers have been really understanding and kind but I've heard a lot of awful things from fellow businesses.
"I support the Royal Mail workers but the anxiety and stress the strikes are causing is unforgivable at this point. I've had advent calendars from mid November that hadn’t arrived by last week.
"In an already challenging economy striking to this degree during the busiest trading period is utterly crippling. Many small businesses will not survive and that will be on the Royal Mail bosses' shoulders.
"It's not even a case of using an alternative service because they're all buckling under the extra demand and many couriers aren't taking new accounts on.
"The union should have accepted the strikes aren't working and called them off. It's just heartbreaking for all of us right now.
"This isn't just a case of if you get a Christmas card on time or a few presents that won't be under the tree. This is people's livelihoods they're destroying."
Dalia Hawley, Enterprise Nation member and founder, Dalia Botanique (natural skincare products):
"I've been using Royal Mail and have little options for other couriers as drop offs are too far away.
"I've had to deal with customer complaints about orders not being received, potential for being out of pocket and the impact it could have on my good reputation.
"I've upgraded everyone to Tracked 24. Even though it's taking a few days rather than 24 hours, it's far better than 1st class!
"I've got post going out this week and conscious that more strikes could bring so much more delays.
"I had to hand deliver stock a week early to a retailer due to postage and train strikes next week!"
Charlotte Giddings, Enterprise Nation member and co-founder, Brownie and the Bean (handcrafted bakes and sweet treats):
"We've experienced big impacts arising from the postal strikes. So much so, we've had to condense our busiest month of the year into two dispatch dates. See the photos to help explain the enormity of the issue!
"We have a great relationship with our posties and have been orchestrating our way through this with their help. They've gone above and beyond to help us."
Keisha Shah, Enterprise Nation member and founder, Teddo Play (educational gifts and learning materials for children):
"We timed our parcels carefully and made sure to send each and every one on the Royal Mail Tracked 24 or Tracked 48 service. We offer free delivery on our website. This meant we had to absorb the additional cost but it ensured that the parcels, most of which were Christmas presents for children, reached our customers safely and on time.
"There's certainly been delays but with the Tracked services, there is at least the peace of mind regarding the whereabouts of the parcel and that it, in fact, reaches the customers safely, albeit a couple of days later."
Nishtha Goel, Enterprise Nation member and founder, Unnaaty (bath, body and home fragrance products):
"Since my business is product based, and I only sell online (apart from occasional pop-ups), I previously relied heavily on Royal Mail for fulfilling my orders.
"Due to the strikes, I have had to move to courier companies like EVRI and DPD. Since these options cost more than Royal Mail, I have increased the minimum order value for free shipping from above £50 to £75 and for now I am absorbing the extra cost."
Clare Hill, Enterprise Nation member and founder of Go Doodle (screen free travel activities for kids):
"I have brought forward the last date for orders to 14 December to avoid customers being disappointed not to receive their orders in time for Christmas. This means a loss of at least five days of trade in a busy trading period for us as a toy retailer.
"I am spending more on supplies, such as boxes and envelopes, as my suppliers are also facing delays in delivery. I'm having to pay for express delivery to ensure I have them available for my orders.
"I haven't yet switched to an alternative courier because I'm hoping that things will get resolved in the new year. If not it could result in higher courier costs that the business will need to absorb as we don’t want to pass these costs on to customers, especially during the cost of living crisis.
"If postal problems persist I may need to change my business model to sell more to my wholesale customers than direct to customers online in order to weather the lower online sales."
Rachel Harper, Enterprise Nation member and co-founder, The Kids Press Company (personalised greeting cards and stationery):
"We have seen an increase of 250% in customer messages about order replacements or refunds in the last four weeks.
"As a small business, we cannot afford to replace every order that is delayed by the Royal Mail strikes. Customer orders are still getting delivered, albeit delayed. We are asking customers to wait 10 working days before we replace their order or refund them and thankfully nine times out of 10, those customers who have contacted us have not followed up for the refund or replacement.
"We have doubled our delivery options for customers so they can choose various options to suit their needs, as well as having customers request replacements and upgrade delivery to an expensive courier service taking the cost of a second order on themselves."
Rachel Smith, founder, iamrachelshop (enamel jewellery products):
"I mainly sell on Etsy. My sales have been up all year but they are down this month. I'm sure it's due to the strikes and customers worrying they won't get their orders in time.
"I am getting one or two messages a day from customers with orders that were posted between 15 and 25 November but still haven't arrived. I have given one refund and sent out two replacements so far.
"Many other small businesses are saying the same and several have chosen to close their online shops early due to the constant customer complaints.
"I do support the postal strikes and think workers should be paid more; look at how the country doesn't function without them!"
Alison Boutoille, Enterprise Nation member and co-founder, CityStack (gift offering discounts at independent London pubs):
"I recently launched CityStack, a gift for pub lovers, and the Royal Mail strike is very difficult to handle, as most of our annual turnover was targeted for the Christmas season. Our customers have to wait up to 10 days to get their parcels, compared to the usual shipping time of three to five days with second class.
"We try to communicate as much as possible to encourage people to order early, and avoid last-minute purchases if they want to be sure to receive their gift in time for Christmas.
"The independent pubs I work with are being impacted by the rail strikes with some being hit by cancellations. It's the most critical season of the year, which is usually very busy with Christmas parties."
Sarah Banks, founder, The Positivity Planner Collection (planners for IVF and fertility treatment):
"I'm getting regular emails from customers asking where their planners are, and in some cases wanting refunds due to late delivery.
"I'm packing and posting my planners on the day I receive the order, and even taking my laptop and planners away on family trips in order to get them posted as quickly as possible, but when they get delivered is out of my hands. I'm trying to offer my usual high levels of customer service, but I am worrying about getting bad reviews or ratings due to late deliveries.
"It is a crucial time of year, where I make 25% of my total yearly sales, and I'm likely to take a hit on my sales as customers will be buying alternatives from larger retailers who can guarantee next day delivery (in time for Christmas or in time for them starting treatment)."
Danielle Dunn, founder, Divine Box (cosmetics products):
"I use Evri for most of my orders and due to an overload of deliveries because of Royal Mail strikes I have been massively affected. With huge time and money lost on the delays this year. I have lost customers, even having to work on my birthday to remake 100 custom items that have been at the depot since 30 NoVember. It has been a huge stress this year."
Alex Stewart, founder, OneNine5 (eco-conscious and unisex travel goods):
"We've been hurt badly by the Royal Mail strikes. We were going to lose 12 days of trading if we continued to ship via Royal Mail pre-Christmas. Instead we're paying double the shipping cost to update all customer to free next day DPD until 21 December."
Lucille Whiting, founder, Sophia Alexander Jewellery (luxury gold and silver jewellery):
"I make bespoke jewellery and outsource various elements (gold casting, hand-engraving, diamond setting, and hallmarking) to other specialists. It involves a lot of postage and everything is really delayed.
"The situation has also been compounded by extraordinary levels of seasonal staff sickness this year - I've just had all five of my children off school for over a week and I'm not the only one.
"My lead-times are usually a maximum of eight weeks but I've been scraping through my deadlines by days which is unprecedented.
"As I am almost exclusively posting jewellery and precious metals, Royal Mail is the only insured carrier I can use.
"I did attempt to send some wax necklaces and charms via DHL and a YODEL driver accidentally took and lost the package - over 20 hours of work gone, 40 if you count the fact that I had to re-make everything.
"I 100% support the striking workers. This situation is all on Royal Mail but that still doesn't make this easier."
Lorraine Clark, co-founder, hapihemp (CBD products):
"When an order doesn't arrive, customers don't blame Royal Mail, they blame us! It leaves people with a negative feeling about hapihemp and we have worked extremely hard to build our reputation.
"We don't have another choice like big corporate companies. We set up with Royal Mail in good faith. Their system links to our system for orders and they have basically locked us in.
"Last week we had a large batch of high value orders go missing. Customers contacted us but we couldn’t give them answers. Everything we send is tracked, but this particular batch had simply disappeared and showed no tracking.
"It eventually turned up at the sorting office. No explanation was given apart from saying they have a back log!
"Three months ago we set up a subscription service so customers don't have the worry of running out or forgetting to reorder their CBD. These strikes have now made a mockery of that.
"It's hard enough right now for small businesses like us with everything else that has gone on and now these strikes will finish off some of them."
Speaking on Monday, Paul Tschornow, founder of Photo Heads (business and commercial photography), said:
"I'm travelling to London for a shoot tomorrow and the strikes have an impact directly on my overheads doubling the cost. I'd ordinarily expect to pay around £60 - £70 on train costs (depending on how organised I am).
"Instead of this I'm paying £26 parking, £15 congestion charge and £80 on petrol (it's a three litre engine which obviously has an environmental impact - yes, you could argue that I could change my car for a smaller engine but it's difficult to do that ready for tomorrow). Overall it reduces my profit margin by around 12%.
"The job is a fairly short one hour job and I would normally try and schedule a second job for the same day but because of the amount of time spent travelling I don't have time to schedule a second shoot, which obviously hits my pocket further."
Mark Reynolds, founder, Hable (change management technology company):
"As a remote-first company, we rely heavily on the railway network. Whilst we leverage the latest technologies to bring our people together, there is always a conscious effort to encourage everyone to meet physically, both for the wellbeing and workplace relations benefits.
"When we do get together in person, as we were planning to for Christmas, we are bringing people together from all over the country.
"The strikes this week have unfortunately meant we've had to postpone our Christmas celebrations until January and cancel our booking with the venue. However, we're still taking the time to meet virtually as a company. It's really important that I still take the time to thank everyone for what they've done this year."