Wednesday 13 November 2013

Royal Mail Stamps v United States Post Office Stamps Service

I doubt that many readers of this column follow closely the philatelic happenings across the pond in the USA, so I hope this will be entertaining and enlightening.

Many people think that Royal Mail issues too many stamps with face values too high.  Another view is that the stamps that are issued are only for collectors with very few being used on letters and parcels, but I showed back in January that the 1st class stamps are widely used - and we've some evidence that the higher values are used, though we don't have as many examples.

But at least Royal Mail tell us what they are doing well in advance.  The programme for 2014 was announced at Stampex, with dealers being provided with details of the stamp designs for the first six months so that they could prepare their first day covers, special handstamps, and in some cases arrange for notable people to sign their covers.  This advance information also allows us to plan for next year - one of the reasons we stopped making our own FDCs and supplying stamps for every issue was that there were no spaces in the schedule for taking holidays!!

Royal Mail's dealer customers can also order stamps (etc) to be delivered in advance of the date of issue which enables FDCs to be prepared and available for sending to standing order customers on or shortly after the day of issue.  This is especially important because Royal Mail don't - in most cases - accept items for postmarking after the date of issue.

In the United States of America it's different.  Stamps can be ordered in advance but dealers and cover producers don't get any advance supplies, which adds to the challenge of getting first day covers on the day at relevant post offices - the equivalent of our CDS postmarked covers.  On the other hand collectors generally have 60 days to get their covers postmarked - and dealers 4 months.*  Which means if they produce, say, 25 covers and they all sell they can then prepare another batch and sell more!  And some people think UK FDCs are 'artificial'.  At least we can do a limited edition and know what the total quantity is.

And although some collectors in the UK say they can't find new stamps at their post offices, we are assured that supplies are sent to all branches.  In the USA stock is deliberately not distributed to all offices - many branches must order, and that even applies to definitives.

Also if you want stamps for your collection you may have to buy a sheet of 20 because many - even with a single design - are only sold in complete sheets because the die-cut perforations interlock - there is no gap between them.  Or they are sold in machine-vended booklets.  No wonder there is so much discount postage in the USA with collectors selling their surplus - there are only so many letters/cards to post after all!

The Americans are also unlucky in the way that news about - and designs of - new stamps are announced.  The USPS has embraced social media in recent years, but without any real co-ordination or pattern.  They have a Facebook page, and had a blog 'Beyond the Perf', which they have now stopped using with all record having disappeared, and can only be seen on the 'wayback archive'.  At one time they had a plan to release news every 90 days.   They didn't keep to it.

Linn's Stamp News editor Michael Baadke wrote in the March 4th issue: "We've been struggling here at Linn's to unearth some of the basic facts about what's going on with the 2013 U.S. stamp program. We don't know why basic details about our nation's stamp program are being revealed later and later."  Partly it was due to downsizing - staffing at the USPS office that did the stamp announcements was cut from six to one.

Back in August the USPS issued a schedule which included a Harry Potter issue - no details, no date.  Linn's reported in September that this would be a pane of 20 to be issued in November.  Only at the end of October did somebody find out that the stamps would be issued on November 19, and that the publicity ceremony would be in Orlando.  But it isn't quite as straightforward as that:

The stamps will be released in "multiple waves". The first "wave" being in time for the First Day of Issue will ONLY be available through Stamp Fulfillment Services (the USPS Philatelic Bureau) which will release a "special automatic distribution to a select group of approx. 3100 "premier" post offices for the first day of issue." The other "wave" will be sometime in December 2013 and no post offices can place orders for the stamp issue until January 2014.

As you can imagine this brought a lot of negative comment from collectors and cover producers!  The November 19 date seems to have been forced by Universal Studios' agreement with the USPS, with the latter doing the big publicity push after Christmas in the 'dead' winter period.

Only yesterday - a week before the issue - did USPS confirm that this would be a pane of 20 different stamps with designs taken from the films, but only one of the designs is yet available. (Image courtesy of the Virtual Stamp Club website.)

USPS has only today - 13 November - provided more details and this image which is possibly of the cover of the book. 

So although I have often been critical of Royal Mail, it's stamp distribution system, the limited information sometimes provided, and it's total lack of real philatelic service, I am very much aware that things could be much worse, and collectors and dealers in GB stamps have much to be thankful for!

* Additional comment: there have been occasions when the covers sent for postmarking in the US may not be returned for 6 months which makes trading and selling very difficult.  Royal Mail's Special Handstamp Centres achieve a very quick turn-round even when they have multiple postmarks to deal with for one stamp issue.  And the quality of the UK product is far superior to that produced in the USA.


  1. Thank you for the post, Ian. It is very true I have to - sadly - admit. I lived in the UK for 9 years before moving to the States 4 years ago and have been a Royal Mail and USPS customer for more than decade.
    I keep track of the expenses occurred for both stamp programs and there isn't much between them. Probably the Royal Mail edges USPS in the amount of money one has to spend to keep up with a COMPLETE collection, but since USPS has started selling imperforate uncut press sheets for almost every issue (which typically cost between $50-$120 PER issue, unless one buys singles/pairs on the secondary market), it is undoubtedly USPS that has become more expensive.
    The biggest problem I have though is that USPS obviously has no intention of consulting their loyal supporters, i.e. us philatelists, with regards to the stamp program and everything related to it (number of issues in general, coils, booklets etc.).
    The best example was the Inverted Jenny souvenir sheet. It not only came at a whopping $12 (6x$2), USPS in their wisdom decided to distribute 100 'right side up' souvenir sheets randomly among the 2 million sheets offered. That resulted in much anger among collectors like me who now have a gap in their collection which they won't be able to fill - unless I win the lottery.
    Furthermore, USPS issues several coil stamps a year and makes some of them only available in coils of 100. There have been 4 this year at a total cost of $171 although a strip of four from each coil would have been only $6.84.
    I could go on, but what's the point... :)

  2. The situation with the USPS has been much worse this year, with the "Mickey Marketeers" as I call them running amuck. In the past few years, there might be one or two "blockbuster" issues that would be kept secret and announced separately, but not half or three-quarters of the program. The current marketing crew seem to have disregard for anyone else's opinions, whether inside the Postal Service or among collectors. The entire advisory panel, which includes marketing professionals who don't otherwise collect stamps, is threatening to quit, because they are being ignored.

  3. Now we know (although we suspected as much) why the USPS felt obligated to hide the stamp designs. A few years ago the USPS floated the idea of showing living persons on US stamps. This was frowned upon by many collectors and eventually vetoed by the Board of Governors (if I recall correctly). Now we are to have living persons on our stamps, and they are not even Americans! Anyway, for those who are morbidly curious, all 20 designs are now available on the Virtual Stamp Club.

    This is ultimately not surprising, considering the changes in personnel relating to the USPS stamp program that have been announced in the last year or two. It has turned to total and craven pandering in order to raise revenue.

    I have some sympathy for the USPS, which has been a target of Republicans in Congress who are trying literally to destroy it. However, as a collector and citizen, I cannot condone the trivialization of the stamp program in order to raise what is ultimately an insignificant amount of revenue. I certainly won't be buying or using any of these Harry Potter stamps, though my family members (all Harry Potter fans but not stamp collectors) may.

    Sadly, when I need to mail a letter, it is getting hard to find any stamps that are not an embarrassment. I certainly wish I could use Machins on my mail.

    I believe it was a former member of our Stamp Advisory Committee who said that their major achievement was not the designs they approved for stamps, it was what they prevented from being on stamps. A recent article in Linn's noted that the SAC has been almost completely sidelined, and I would guess the Harry Potter issue is the final blow. I would not be surprised to read about resignations from the committee, or maybe the USPS will drop pretenses and dissolve the committee entirely.

    By the way, relating to the 'right side up' Jenny, it is an abomination, but Frank Lippert and other collectors won't have a gap in their collections if they follow the Scott Catalogue, since Scott won't be assigning it a number. (At least there's sanity somewhere.) Hopefully Gibbons won't either.


    1. Hi Larry

      Re the CSAC if you want to see the content of their letter to the PMG it is reproduced here on the Delphi Stamp Collecting Forum. Sample paragraph:

      "The committee meetings are devoid of record keeping, proper minutes, simple protocol, and an open environment allowing discussion and analysis. We are left with little time to brainstorm or to debate any idea. The overall feeling is that our input as a group is not valued or even taken into consideration by the USPS staff."

      Sad state of affairs, but obviously Nagisa Manibe CAN run a p***-up in a brewery having previously been VP of 'New Growth Platforms' at Coca Cola and VP for Marketing at Diageo Guinness USA, the beer and malt beverage division of Diageo, the worldwide spirits, wine and beer company.

  4. Excellent post. Being an expat who has lived in the US for 20 years I have yet to get to grips with the USPS system. About 10 years ago I decided to add an additional branch to my collection (I have been an avid collector of Machin errors for many years), US definitives. I pursued this for about 5 years and gave up as I was unable to source variant issues even though I worked a stones throw from the central post office in Boston.

    The whole USPS system is overburden with bureaucracy that has all but killed it.


  5. Really interesting post and comments, more like this please

  6. Many of my Postcrossing friends and penpals in the US order stamps online. Some use rather old stamps (on a cover sent to me recently, there were 2 different flag forevers, and a 6c register & vote stamp plus a US Bicentennial 13c stamp, and on another envelope, 3 different lighthouses), though I still get a bit of mail with the global forever stamp on. A friend gave me the stamp brochure thing with Johnny Cash on the front (and also a lovely little paper mache US mailbox!), when she came over to visit.
    As for RM stamps, my town's main post office never gets in enough stamps for my Postcrossing/penpalling needs and I have to go a few miles out of town on the bus to a little sub post office run by a lovely kind old gentleman for my postal needs.


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