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Old 8th October 2010, 05:09 AM
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Smile BBC Watchdog: Post haste... or not.

Weddings - love is in the air, and the sound of laughter and church bells come together. Everything needs to be right, from the wedding dress down to the little bow on the invites. But what if the smallest detail - and we're talking the smallest - goes wrong? Well, if the Royal Mail is involved in your plans, it could be a disaster. Watchdog sent Riz Lateef to find out why.

We heard from Jonny and Nina Blain, who got married at the beginning of October. Their wedding invitations were handmade, but as far as they were concerned they were all identical. So, they went down to their local Post Office to have just one of them measured.

When they were told it was the correct size and weight for a standard first class stamp, they popped them all in the post thinking everything would be alright...

But then things started to go wrong. It turned out that Royal Mail had held back 36 invitations out of just over 100, saying they were too large for a standard first class stamp. They'd sent those invitees - including Jonny's grandmother - a note demanding 10 pence to cover the additional charge for the larger stamp size, PLUS a £1 admin fee.

"The annoyance from finding out... just turned into anger and embarrassment," Jonny said. "It was just very embarrassing having to ring people to say 'Have you got an invitation?'"

To save themselves further embarrassment, Nina and her mother Yvette decided to collect the invites themselves, from delivery offices all over North London. But as they believed they'd already paid the right price, they challenged the new charge. Which is when it became confusing. Yvette explained:

"It's just so random - some delivery offices were accepting that it was in error and handing them over with no payment requested, and then others were not releasing it until the postage had been paid."

And this isn't a one-off. We also met Linda Abrahams, whose wedding company in Leeds has been hand-making wedding invites for over 15 years. Until 2006, Linda was happy to post out the invites for her clients too. But then Royal Mail changed the way it charges for post, moving from one system of weighing letters to one where they measure the dimensions and the thickness of the envelope too. Since then, Linda's seen customer after customer have problems with their invites.

"You can't underestimate how much embarrassment it would cause that bride and her family who've been planning this very special day for maybe 12 months or more," she said. "They are mortified."

So why is Royal Mail delivering some invites without a problem, whilst slapping extra charges on others? Watchdog decided to find out.

We asked Linda's team to make up 100 invites for us. They're all of the same design, but they do have a handmade bow on the front. If the envelope they are sent in is going to take a standard first class stamp, they must be able to fit through the 5mm slot in Royal Mail's measuring plate. We tested each of our invites, and they all fit through the slot. However, while some drop straight through unaided, others require just a tiny bit of a push.

So, we took our thickest envelope to ten different post offices between London and Manchester. Would they all agree on how much to charge?

The answer? No. The opinions of the Post Office staff differed throughout our test. In total, four out of the ten Post Offices we visited considered our invite over-sized and wanted to charge extra. But the other six allowed it through with a standard first class stamp. Also, an amazing 9 out of 10 said we didn't need to bother checking all 100 invites, even though the handmade bow made each envelope vary in size.

And that matters, because even if staff at the Post Office don't check them individually, staff at the sorting office do. Every single one could go through the machinery. And 99 invites arrived without further charges.

We consulted independent postal expert David Stubbs, who told us:

"The prices are really based upon whether the items can go through Royal Mail's sorting machines or not. It could still go through the slot... and the post office staff who look at it still think it's ok...if it gets spat out by one of the sorting machines - if it's got a bow on it or if it's got a bulge in the envelope - then you're going to get a fine."

So what's the lesson here? For you, make sure you get the Post Office to check all your invites. Even the smallest difference counts. And for Royal Mail? Why not use a fail-safe system to measure letters that isn't open to interpretation?

After all, it's been in place for four years now. You'd think they'd be able to get it right.

Royal Mail Response:

A Royal Mail spokesman said:

"We are very sorry for the difficulties experienced by the customer and the wedding guests whose invitations were surcharged.

"The huge bulk of the tens of millions of items of mail we handle daily carries the correct postage and surcharging applies to a minute fraction. If there are any cases where an error has been made at any point in our operation then we would, of course, refund to the customer the postage and administration costs involved.

"We would also like to point out that when posting a number of items, it's important to check each one as slight variations may occur."

Watchdog Viewers' Responses:

We were also affected by the Royal mail even to the point that in Hertfordshire and Worcestershire we had two separate invites going to the same house and the Royal Mail delivered one and charged for the other identical invite. Very embarrassing. It makes it worse that the postage keeps going up and the service gets worse and worse!

Toria Hood, Wiltshire

Why can't the post office stamp the envelope to show it has been checked so the sorting office have no complaints?

Anonymous Watchdog Viewer

We recntly had a wedding invite turn up and had to pay £1.10 to collect it, we never even bothered looking into the reason why, but now we've seen this tonight, reckon it must have been the same thing! However we just paid it and didn't embarrass the happy couple by mentioning it to them!


We too have sent homemade wedding invites out & several of our guests had to pay to receive theirs!we sent 2 invites to the same address but only 1 were charged!!Having checked 1 invite in the Royal Mail template it went through fine! It was extremely embarrasing.

Shelley, Northampton

Post haste... or not.
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