News out of Iceland last week has shocked the placid world of stamp collecting and made this puffin sad.
Customers of Iceland’s philatelic service last week received a distressing email from Vilhjalmur Sigurdsson, the head of philately for Iceland Post. Here’s an excerpt.
Iceland Post, Stamp and Philatelic Department (Postphil) will be abolished at the end of this year after about 90 years in operation.
We still have two stamp issues left this year, on September 12th. and October 31st., but when they are done the department will be closed down for good and will stop serving stamp collectors, domestic and foreign, altogether.
The fact that the number of our philatelic customers have constantly been decreasing year after year has lead to years of deficit for Postphil.
Iceland Post has got a new CEO Mr. Birgir Jonsson, who is cutting down everything that is not profitable in this company, including Postphil, and that is due to the fact that Iceland Post currently has severe operating difficulties.
To-day, August 20 Iceland Post is laying off about 50 people throughout the company.
This is obviously terrible news for the employees of Postphil, and my heart goes out to them. Iceland’s stamps are vibrant and fascinating, and Postphil runs a particularly good website in no fewer than five languages.
Like many postal administrations worldwide, Iceland post is in deep financial shit. It falls to Jónsson to fix it. In the wake of this news, stamp industry commentators have pored over his CV and commenced personal attacks in the apparent belief that someone cannot possibly be a former heavy metal drummer AND possess the basic ability to read a balance sheet.
But that is missing the point. Rowland HiIl himself would struggle to steer a post office away from disaster in this age, when the only things dying faster than the letter business are stamp collectors themselves. Jónsson has the unenviable task of keeping Iceland Post afloat in a nation that’s only barely hauling itself up from the mat after a crushing recession, with a population of not even half a million people.
He speaks a little more for himself in the Iceland Review:
“Iceland Post has run an ambitious operation and postage stamp publication for decades,” said CEO Birgir Jónsson. “Now, the outlook for the company’s operational environment means that we cannot continue the publication. We’ve lost tens of millions each year on this operation. This is part of the rationalization measures which we’re in the middle of. Regrettably, we have to cut down there as we do in other departments.”
… The publication of new postage stamps is prepared years in advance. The publication will be continued through next year, and maybe a little bit into 2021, to finish prior plans. According to Birgir, the publication will cease then and Iceland Post will rely on its sizable postage stamp stock. “We have a stock of stamps which will last for many years, and maybe until the last letter will be sent.” Birgir says that if the stamp stock finishes before the last letters and postcards will be sent, it is possible to re-print stamps.
A stock of stamps that will last until the last letter is sent? He may have been exaggerating, but it’s an insight into the future faced by postal authorities worldwide. Someone does need to tell him that stamps can go on parcels too.
Still, it’s suprising to hear a postal boss talk like this. In recent years, philatelic departments have been seen not as financial burdens, but as cash cows to be milked as letter volumes diminish. They’ve propped up postal finances by churning out thousands of unnecessary stamps and associated “collectible” products every year. Authorities rely on collectors who are hypnotised by the completist spell: we must have One Of Everything! For everybody else, pop culture gimmicks and tacky nationalism are pumped out to lure us through the door.
Well, that only works while a sizeable collector market exists for new issues. This week’s announcement sends a stark warning that philatelic services will only be around as long as they earn their place. It’s natural that smaller countries will feel the pinch first.
The irony is that stamp chat boards are full of collectors lamenting that they’ve been forced to give up collecting new issues due to the number of products issued by profit-hungry post offices. If you can’t afford One Of Everything, what’s the point in buying anything? Some have given up altogether; many have chosen a favourite nation or two and let the others go. Friends in the lifelong habit of swapping their respective nations’ new releases are deciding that this is a luxury that neither can afford any more.
But if ‘fewer stamp issues’ is the answer, be careful what you wish for. Iceland Post’s Jónsson has his sights set on more than just the philatelic department. He’d rather not issue stamps at all. From Vilhjalmur Sigurdsson’s email:
The current management of Iceland Post Ltd. prefers if possible to stop issuing new stamps altogether, but on the basis of current law, Iceland Post cannot unilaterally decide to do so.
However, there is some uncertainty as to how these matters will be handled in the future and the company is waiting for answers from its owner, the Icelandic state.
If the company must keep on issuing new stamps in 2020 and onward the number of new stamps will be very few each year and there will be no service for stamp collectors.
According to CEO Mr. Birgir Jonsson this task of producing and issuing new stamps could be given to outside contractors.
Jónsson has pulled back the curtain to reveal the stark truth that few have dared to speak: stamps are, quite simply, a financial encumbrance to modern postal administrations. Why pay for the constant design and printing of new stamps when counter-printed receipts or DIY adhesive labels do the same job for much less?
It’s anathema to even suggest such a thing in collecting circles. But spend any time in a post office watching zombie customers unquestioningly accept whatever they’re given by the counter clerk, and you’ll realise that if stamps were withdrawn tomorrow, the vast majority of mail-senders wouldn’t even notice.
Communications department accountants worldwide will be watching this move with excitement. This blog warned you about them four years ago. If Iceland’s Mr Jónsson can dispense with stamps with minimal outrage, a crack will have formed in the dam wall, and those accountants, those soldiers for the forces of Boring, will work their pencils furiously into that crack to widen the gap and end the days of the stamp forever.
There are, of course, many arguments in favour of retaining the humble stamp, not least the inestimable economic value of the ‘brand’ they present on outgoing mail, the convenience of prepaid adhesive postage (there’s still a market for that product – why not make it attractive?), and the social benefits of simply cheering people up on the rare occasion they actually get a letter with a stamp on it.
But if those arguments fail to be heard, then the end of Iceland’s stamps need not mean the end of collecting Iceland’s stamps. Philatelic ‘dead countries’ have one big attraction: completeness. You can collect from start to finish, knowing that there is an end-point, and you won’t find yourself bent over a barrel at the mercy of voluminous new issues. Even an austere limit on new issues will make Iceland’s stamps more affordable to the One Of Everything crowd, and may help to preserve collector interest.
In case you’re wondering, for all my realism, I am pro-stamp. I hope this dry economic irrationalism inspires Icelanders take to the streets, shrieking like Björk, ideally led by actual Björk. I hope Iceland is not so skint that it can’t at least issue a stamp occasionally. I hope philatelic bureaus elsewhere successfully pursue profit margins without pushing away collectors.
But most of all: next time you’re at the post office, half-asleep from the queues and the Muzak, and you finally reach the counter to post off that eBay lot or Etsy purchase, I hope YOU remember to refuse that dreary machine sticker for your 21st-century package.
Fight the boring. Demand a stamp.
© Philatelic product images remain the copyright of issuing postal administrations and successor authorities, assuming they haven’t been sacked by some pencil-sucking accountant