Imagine it’s 2030, that’s 16 years from now, not half past eight in the evening, clever guy.

You sit down to write a letter with your futuristic ray gun pen. But wait, haven’t the postal service just announced hover ships are no longer delivering sealed missives?

Have postal bods stop delivering the letter (the last mile at least)? How have letter volumes changed alongside email and social messaging? How has click and collect affected courier services? Could Amazon be ruling parcel mail?

There are indeed lots of questions.

Well, it’s the New Year and I think it’s time for a literature study, this time looking at the humble letter. After all, I have previously delighted and enthralled my colleagues, collecting tens of page impressions by writing about the fax machine. So why not pen and paper?

I’ve been tracing the history of letter writing in numbers alongside the rise of email and social. Are we close to the end of the letter and triumph of online?

The Telegraph reports that in the UK, addressed letters are expected to decline from 13.8bn sent annually in 2013, to 8.3bn in 2023. 

This sounds quite conservative to me, giving that lots of billing systems are moving online.

How have letter volumes declined?

Data from 2007 onwards is quite revealing. This is when social networks really started to take off, Facebook having transitioned from educational institutions to the wider world and of course, email was established at this point, with many players in the market, not least Gmail (launched 2004). 

Facebook user growth since 2008 

  • August 2008 – 100m
  • April 2009 – 200m
  • Feb 2010 – 400m
  • Jan 2011 – 600m
  • April 2012 – 900m
  • March 2013 – 1.1bn

Gmail grew rapidly from 2004 to 2012, reaching 425m users in that year, the most popular web-based email.

In that time, the decline in letter volume has been stark. In the US, from 2007 to 2013 there’s been a 21% decrease in letter volume.

US Postal Service

  • Year – Letters mailed
  • 2007 – 212bn
  • 2008 – 203bn
  • 2009 – 177bn
  • 2010 – 171bn
  • 2011 – 168bn
  • 2012 – 162bn
  • 2013 – 158bn

Of course, 158bn US letters is still an enormous number, but it seems smaller when you consider that Facebook messages hit 4bn a day in 2010 and some estimates have emails sent daily at 250bn

Let’s say that again, there are more emails sent every day than there are US letters in a year. 

The decline of letter volume hasn’t only been in the US. In Europe, employment, revenue and letters sent are all down.

What do we still need letters for?

Interestingly enough, the majority of addressed mail, i.e. not spam, is bills. When a generational shift occurs, with both customers wanting to access bills online and suppliers not wanting to spend on mail, a lot of this will continue to thin out.

From the Royal Mail’s last report:

We have been encouraged to see increasing levels of support from business mail customers with regard to giving their customers the choice to keep paper statements if they wish. However, we continued to see declines in business mail volumes as business customers – particularly in the financial services industry – sought to move some customer communications online.

Most social letters we receive are greetings cards. In the UK we received 13 social letters per person last year, down from 18 in 2006. 

In some countries, the decline of mail has meant the end of ‘last mile’ postal services. ‘Last mile’ is delivery from door to door; in Canada this has stopped, with citizens journeying to their local communal postboxes to pick up their mail. 

Canada Post’s former CEO, who ended ‘last mile’ delivery, is now in charge at Royal Mail in the UK, so the UK’s ‘last mile’ may also be subject to revision

This is good news for some. Many environmentalists believe that the culture of the suburb or an even greater dispersion of a country’s inhabitants, such as is seen in parts of the US, is a bad idea. 

Travelling between work and home uses more fuel and decreases quality of life by taking away large chunks of time. Social cohesion can be achieved easier with higher density living around communal space.

The environment benefits, as is seen in Mexico, where forest fires can burn naturally and cause less damage than in California, where they are fought back from outlying condos, resulting in more fires (as they aren’t allowed to burn out vegetation) and often the deaths of fire-fighters. 

So perhaps the ‘last mile’ isn’t part of an efficient society, though of course, many would still have to travel to pick up mail. Of course, I’m not saying here that it is possible to change the way communities live, just that maybe we’ll look back on letter delivery as absurd.

How are postal services and retailers adapting to change?

Online sales currently account for 10% of all retail in the UK having represented just 2.7% in January 2007, this according to the Office for National Statistics. 

Perhaps this increase since 2007 will continue and we can expect a levelling out nearer to 15%. That’s just a stab in the dark, but whatever figure is reached, it’s certain that parcel delivery is set to get bigger, before it gets bigger, all the while letters are declining. 

This increase in deliveries means that courier networks are big business. Amazon may soon start its own courier network, well placed as it is to do so. They’ll be able to sell this to retailers as well as use it to decrease costs of their own deliveries.

Royal Mail still does well with its parcel service. Again from its own report:

A recent survey in the UK conducted on behalf of Which? found that regular post was the consumer’s favourite way to receive their online shopping, achieving a customer score of 80 per cent.

A separate survey found 76 per cent of consumers would be more likely to re-use a particular online retailer if they use Royal Mail for delivery (58 per cent said the same for Parcelforce Worldwide).

But, there’s also a trend that will slow down the rise of the parcel – that’s click and collect. A great piece on the Econsultancy blog examines how it has allowed retailer on the high street to fight back against pure plays because of their presence, allowing customers to come in and pick up goods. 

In fact, the Post Office has launched its own click and collect service this year working with retailers.

Pureplays are getting involved, too. Amazon with lockers and eBay through partnering with Argos stores.

Are there any advantages of the humble letter over email?

Spam is probably one of the few benefits, as in physical mail brings much less of it – it’s the other side of the coin (the coin being the price of mail). You can see the unaddressed letters (spam) in the UK are about 3bn a year. 

UK Volumes (m)

  • Addressed letters 6,477
  • Unaddressed letters(spam) 1,513

(Half year ended 29 September 2013)

3bn a year is way too much spam, but lots less than the pile that arrives via email. 

In Q2 the percentage of spam in total email traffic increased by 4.2% from the first quarter of 2013 and came to 70.7%, according to Kaspersky.

97% of all emails sent over the net are unwanted, according to a Microsoft security report from 2009. Even if only a fraction are opened, the number far trumps physical junk mail.

Even 22% of targeted marketers’ emails fail to hit the inbox, according to Econsultancy’s Email Marketing Census.

And just for some trivia…how did the initial growth of letters and email compare?

In the UK, the national penny post system was introduced in 1839, made possible by the development of railway and mass education. 

The growth in letter writing that followed was quicker than the decline we’re seeing now. Just look at the numbers. 

Year – Letters sent

  • 1839 – 75.9m
  • 1840 – 168.8m
  • 1845 – 271.4m
  • 1850 – 347.1m
  • 1853 – 410.8m

(Taken from Letter Writing as a Social Practice edited by David Barton, Nigel Hall)

Internet based email was first sent in 1971 and the first free system was Hotmail in 1996. Of course, since that point, the price point of email as opposed to a stamp and envelope has been just one of its advantages.

Year – Hotmail inboxes

  • 1997 – 8m
  • 2000 – 67m 
  • 2001 – 100m
  • 2002 – 110m
  • 2003 – 145m

Although letters sent are perhaps better compared to emails sent, you can see that Hotmail inboxes grew at a similar rate and scale to postal volume when introduced.

In its first 18 months Hotmail garnered 12m users. It’s hard to compare this to adoption rates of Facebook and Twitter as they came along when more people were online. However, comparing email inboxes worldwide in 2013, estimated by some at 2.5bn, with the 1.1bn on Facebook and 500m on Twitter, perhaps the two can be equated.

Will letter writing survive?

I think my conclusion is that we haven’t yet replaced the written letter. We still feel awkward sending e-cards and even ‘moonpigs’, we feel we need to personally touch and sign something that can be held by the recipient.

Perhaps there’s a startup that’s yet to emerge, for a service that replaces letter writing, is personal and creative, and exists online. In 2030, your guess is as good as mine.