SingPost CEO interview: Transforming the postal service in Singapore

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In December 2020,  Singapore Post (SingPost) announced the launch of a one-year public trial of PostPal, the world’s first next-generation smart letterboxes, starting with the residents of Block 202 Clementi Avenue 6 in the west of Singapore. Developed as part of SingPost’s Future of Post vision, which looks to transform the post’s operations through the use of technology, PostPal will be an important part of the organization’s ability to handle rising e-commerce volumes. Here, Paul Coutts, group chief executive officer of SingPost, explains how the smart letterbox, as well as the post’s other developments, are set to revolutionize the way the company delivers convenience and service to its customers.

What are the key benefits of the PostPal letterbox for SingPost and its customers? 

PostPal is designed to reinvent the local postal service for the island state of Singapore, and we believe that it is the first of its kind in the world. The smart letterbox system offers numerous quality-of-life benefits for residents and our postal delivery teams. Essentially, PostPal offers an unprecedented level of convenience and accessibility. Gone are the days when residents would have to blind-check their letterboxes for mail on a regular basis. Residents living in high-rise apartments will be alerted via the SingPost app whenever they receive mail. 

PostPal has also digitized and simplified the mail collection process. Instead of a key that is easily lost and duplicated, residents need only scan a QR code dynamically generated by the SingPost app at the PostPal kiosk and their mail will be dispensed. Residents can also use the app to register trusted individuals such as family members to collect mail on their behalf, as well as check the number of mail items pending collection at any point in time. 

PostPal’s dynamic mail allocation capability will enable more postal packages to be stored than traditional letterboxes, an especially important point given Covid-19’s catalytic impact on e-commerce. 

For the postal delivery teams, PostPal’s automatic mail sorting function saves time spent every morning manually arranging and distributing the mail. PostPal’s advanced security features include master-door sensors and around-the-clock CCTV cameras – a significant upgrade in terms of mail security. 

Why is the development significant for the postal industry as a whole? 

This, we believe, is the first time that a ‘smart’ letterbox with such capabilities is being deployed anywhere in the world. In fact, letterboxes in most, if not all, parts of the world have not been updated in state, form and function for decades, even centuries. These letterboxes are still functional as repositories of letters, but their limitations become clear when it comes to e-commerce items, the volumes of which have been accelerating at an extraordinary rate domestically as well as internationally in recent years. 

In addition, Covid-19 acted as a catalyst for e-commerce growth. Analysts are forecasting that with changes in behavioral patterns across the globe, this level of e-commerce activity will continue to grow, making the upgrading of the traditional letterbox infrastructure a necessity to proactively prepare ourselves for an e-commerce-fueled future. 

How were the PostPal letterboxes developed, and why was this specific design chosen? 

PostPal’s development was led by a few key priorities, including the need to adequately serve increasing e-commerce mail volumes, enhance mail delivery operations and offer an improved mail collection experience for the consumer. Seeing as this would be the first smart letterbox in the world, we decided to call a tender for a technology vendor to work with us, which received a very good response. Ultimately, we chose a local vendor whose design proposal fulfilled our requirements, and together we went through a few iterations before arriving on the current PostPal configuration. 

The PostPal smart letterbox will automatically sort mail items for postal workers

How are these types of letterboxes funded and maintained? 

Under the public trial, SingPost shoulders the majority of development and production costs for PostPal. The Singapore government has also provided a measure of support by approving grants that have offset a proportion of the costs. For residents served by PostPal during the trial period, the service is free of charge. We will continue to explore cost options as we proceed with the trial program. 

In terms of maintenance, the postal delivery teams have been trained to operate PostPal and conduct basic maintenance such as ensuring all components work as they should, clearing of returned mail, etc. For emergencies, we have a rapid-response team on standby 24/7 to react expeditiously to any scenario. 

What are you hoping to learn from the one-year trial, and what have you learned so far? 

We are hoping to garner feedback from residents as well as our postal delivery teams on how we can further enhance PostPal. We have been very heartened by residents’ reactions thus far, as a vast majority have transitioned very smoothly from their traditional letterboxes to PostPal. What has been particularly encouraging is the ease with which the elderly have embraced PostPal. 

Residents have shared that PostPal has been relatively easy to learn and use, and they have given us suggestions on how to further simplify the learning process – such as placing step-by-step instructions on the PostPal façade – which we will take into account in future iterations. 

How does PostPal fit into SingPost’s overall Future of Post vision?

PostPal is but one facet of our Future of Post vision, which involves a review of every component in the postal process with a view to using technology to enhance operations and improve user experience. From posting boxes to mail processing processes and equipment, and even stamps, we are looking at using technology to streamline processes, introduce additional features and improve efficiencies across the board. An example would be the development of ‘smart’ stamps, which are able to track mail to which they are affixed via a data matrix printed on them. All these developments are envisaged to work in concert to bring an unparalleled level of postal service to residents as well as postal staff in the next five years. 

What is Future of Post and why is it important to SingPost? 

The Future of Post project is a vision of a postal system driven by technology, that is able to efficiently and effectively meet all regulatory requirements while delivering a service and customer experience that is superior to the existing one. 

Through technology, postal staff are also upskilled to take on more technology-focused tasks than the manually intensive ones they are doing now. In tandem with the digital transformation of our assets and infrastructure, the roles and responsibilities of the postal staff will also be correspondingly upgraded. For example, with PostPal, the postman’s job will be upgraded to one reminiscent of a ‘postal engineer’. He will no longer be required to spend hours manually sorting and distributing the mail. Instead, his job will be to inspect and, if required, conduct basic maintenance of the PostPal kiosks on his beat, as well as customize them according to the postal needs of his residents. This translates to a service that is more streamlined, effective and adds value to its employees. 

These are vital to the continued growth and success of SingPost, especially given the trend of declining volumes of letters and flats coupled with the boom in e-commerce volumes in recent years. In tandem with the surge in e-commerce mail and parcel volumes, customer expectations for post have also risen, and they now expect an equivalent level of service for mail and courier deliveries (item tracking, notification of delivery, etc). The Future of Post vision thus serves as a roadmap for us to serve the evolving needs of our residents well into the future. 

The current PostPal unit is designed to serve public housing blocks, as around 80% of Singaporeans reside in them

How will the vision revolutionize retail and community services? 

Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of e-commerce to the retail sector. Analysts have forecast that the increased numbers of e-commerce shoppers will be sustained, and will even grow following Covid-19. The pandemic has also convinced bricks-and-mortar shops that an online presence is complementary to their physical operations. With a corresponding increase in e-commerce deliveries, a postal system capable of delivering items safely, efficiently and with the same transparency and assurance as courier services at a far lower cost will be a game-changer for the retail landscape. 

In terms of community services, PostPal enables us to identify households that have not cleared their letterboxes over an extended period of time despite numerous mail receipt notifications, opening the door to social/medical intervention if necessary – for example, if the resident has been identified by social agencies as vulnerable or senior. 

Down the line, PostPal can also serve as a central site for collection of essential items in times of crisis, such as masks, hand sanitizers, etc, negating the need for additional resources to be deployed. These are just two examples of PostPal’s potential in expanding the function of letterboxes for the community. 

How is e-commerce growing in Singapore? 

E-commerce volumes have been on a steady uptrend over the past few years, but Covid-19 has greatly accelerated the growth. During the year-end peak season months of October and November last year, average total daily e-commerce volumes for SingPost’s postal and courier businesses surged 30% year-on-year. 

This corroborates numerous studies showing a surge in e-commerce volumes in Singapore as well as across the Southeast Asia region. A Bain and Facebook study also found that in the six Southeast Asia countries they surveyed (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines and Vietnam) ‘roughly 83% of those shopping online say they are likely to continue their increased spending online after restrictions are lifted’, pointing to the longevity of e-commerce beyond the pandemic. Another useful resource showing the surge in digital consumption due to Covid-19 is the e-Conomy SEA 2020 report by Bain, Temasek Holdings and Google. 

How has Covid-19 affected SingPost’s operations and business in terms of revenue and volumes handled?

Covid-19 has had a catalytic effect on postal as well as parcel volumes. During Singapore’s ‘circuit breaker’ period during the months of April to June 2020, when strict movement restrictions were implemented nationwide, we saw an unprecedented surge in e-commerce volumes of over 50% year-on-year, with the postal service responsible for delivering almost half of the volumes. This uptrend culminated in a 30% year-on-year surge during the peak season months of October and November. 

Revenue has also grown in tandem with e-commerce volumes. For the half year ending September 30, 2020, revenue rose 9.6%, led by growth in the post and parcel as well as logistics segments. Notably, e-commerce revenue took up almost a third of all domestic post and parcel revenues, up from 18% the previous year. However, the high cost of operations due to the pandemic has also put a lid on our optimism and we continue to adapt to the challenges that Covid-19 is still inflicting on the business globally. 

Can you tell us about any unique services that have been developed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic? 

In February 2020, we started a medicine delivery service replete with robust cold-chain capabilities
to service patients who might understandably be wary of visiting healthcare institutions due to the increasing spread of Covid-19 then. 

Through these deliveries, it is our hope that these patients can have peace of mind, and frontline medical workers can focus their efforts on emergencies as well as battling the pandemic. The service has been very well received, and we have expanded our coverage from one hospital and three polyclinics in April to all public healthcare institutions now. 

What key challenges is SingPost facing at the moment and what is the company doing to overcome these? 

The world continues to grapple with the fluid international situation due to Covid-19, just like we are. Supply lines worldwide are changing on a daily basis as countries react to their domestic Covid-19 situations, and we have to adapt to these changes on a continuous basis. 

For centuries now, Singapore has been a key global trans-shipment hub, considering its geographical location, government trade policies, operational infrastructure and air hub status. Although Covid-19 has had a significant impact on air capacity globally over the past year, the development of vaccines has been a shot in the arm for the industry. As vaccines become more widely available and more people are inoculated against Covid-19, we expect a strong recovery in global trade, and for Singapore to re-emerge as the key trans-shipment hub of choice in Asia. 

On the domestic front, we are also sparing no effort in keeping our staff safe and healthy during this challenging period. Additional precautions such as the donning of PPI, split-team work arrangements, social distancing and manpower limits for post offices and other premises have posed unique challenges, but staff have generally been very understanding and spirits are high because they are proud of our service to the nation. 

What is SingPost’s long-term goal?

We hope to maintain our position as the leading postal and courier service for Singapore as well as internationally. With our Future of Post vision, we are transforming our operation to a more streamlined and efficient one that is led by technology, while providing unprecedented convenience and service to consumers. We also wish to play our part as a socially responsible service and will continue to explore and develop capabilities and community initiatives in areas that complement our strengths.

This article was originally published in the April 2021 issue of Parcel and Postal Technology International 

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Helen has worked for UKi Media & Events for nearly a decade. She joined the company as assistant editor on Passenger Terminal World and since progressed to become editor of five publications, covering everything from aviation, logistics and e-commerce to meteorology. She has a love for travel and property and has redeveloped three houses in three years. When she’s not editing magazines, she’s running around after her two boys and their partner in crime, Pete the pug.

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