Digital World: Lessons from the Israel Postal Company

ByDAVID SHAMAH
November 15, 2010 22:39

If the Postal Company thought it could rake in a payday by charging NIS 35 for every package, a little consumer guerrilla warfare was called for.




Some mailboxes in Israel.

mailboxes_311. (photo credit:(Muhandes/Wikipedia Commons))

There’s a lesson in the brouhaha over the planned/attempted/ failed (depending on whom you believe) plan by the Israel Postal Company (formerly just the Post Office) to impose a fee of NIS 34.80 to NIS 38 (ditto on believing) on all packages/some packages/packages over a certain size and value (again ditto) sent from abroad. Actually, there are lessons, plural, telling us a lot about Israel, Israelis – and how the Internet really works.

First, the story, as it currently stands: Sometime last week, news reports began appearing in the Hebrew-language news sites (Yediot Aharonot, Nana, Mako, etc.) on a new, seemingly draconian edict: All packages arriving from abroad would be subject to new fees, due to “customs requirements.” Recipients of books and other items $50 or less in value would pay NIS 38 in “processing fees,” while items valued at over $50 would be charged a processing fee, customs payments and VAT. The move raised the ire of almost everyone, and it threatened to deal a death blow to Internet shopping for Israelis.

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As the story developed, spokespeople for the Postal Authority said the change was “being forced on them” by the government; the Post Office is the next public company in line for privatization, and services it had received in the past from the government would now cost it money. One of those services that now had to be paid for, the spokespeople later said, was Customs Authority inspection of letters and packages. Apparently in the past, Customs had stationed staff at the Postal Authority’s intake facility, conducting whatever checks they needed to on the spot (the arrangement was due to a special act of the Knesset).

Now that the private Postal Company is to be in charge of the mail, it was decided that it would be unfair to provide the company with a service not given to private parcel companies, like UPS and Fedex. So, packages sent through the Postal Company would now require a payment of a “handling fee,” as the Postal Company now had to ship packages to Customs, pay them a service fee, etc. And now, all packages, not just those with a declared value of over $100 (as had been the “custom” until now) would have to be inspected.


After a week of really bad press, the Post Office people finally clarified/relented/surrendered. On Sunday, the deputy head of the Postal Company, Herzl Bar-Mag, told Israel Radio that “there never was a plan to charge for packages from abroad.” Actually, that wasn’t quite the case: What he meant, he said, was that 90 percent of packages would be exempt.

The company later that day released “corrected” information in a press statement, and, as of this moment, the stated policy on packages is as follows: Packages with a declared value of $50 or less ($70 for clothing and books) that are shipped to Israel in parcels that weigh two kilograms or less will not be charged anything – no duties, no handling fees. The fees (but not customs charges) kick in only on packages larger than 2 kg. Packages valued at more than $50 will be subject to all customs/fees, etc.

According to Bar-Mag, Postal Company statistics show that 90% of the packages sent to Israel, whether from friends/relatives or from shopping sites like eBay, Amazon and the ever-popular DealExtreme (which ships free and has a slew of items under $2) would be exempt from any charges. And, by the way, he added, the fee is “only” NIS 35, not NIS 38. So, said Bar-Mag and the rest of the Post Office crew, the whole story was a tempest in a teapot – much ado about nothing.

Of course, none of us believe that. Anyone reading the talkbacks on the articles that appeared on this subject online would have been impressed at the fury normally compliant Israelis (when it comes to paying taxes and fees) displayed when their Internet shopping and shipping was threatened. Petitions were signed by tens of thousands in a matter of days, Knesset members got into the act and choice “expletive deleteds” were hurled at the postal people.

What got the Postal Company to back down? The question assumes that there really had been a plan to impose the charges and that the company changed its mind after seeing the Internet outrage. I rather think it was because of one particular tactic suggested by many talkbackers. If the Postal Company thought it could rake in a payday by charging NIS 35 for any and every package, a little consumer guerrilla warfare was called for: Order lots of 99-cent items from DealExtreme, and “forget” to pick them up from the Post Office. By “donating” ten bucks, tens of thousands of Israelis could gum up the works in the Customs office, thus showing the “authorities” what happens when they mess with irate consumers.

That’s the story, in a nutshell – and here are the lessons (IMHO, YMMV and all other usual disclaimers apply):

• Internet Ignorance: The Postal Company claims this week that its plan all along was to exempt packages 2 kg. and under from the charge. But last week’s stories that claimed all packages would be checked and charged seemed to include copious comments from Postal Company officials. Like any other large business in this country, they no doubt have an official spokesperson who is supposed to stay on top of stories – or inaccuracies, if that was the case. Don’t they use Twitter over there? And if not, I think I see a job opening for a social-media consultant looking for work!

• Net journalism needs work: What applies to the Postal Company applies double to the news websites that spread the story. The first story on the charges appeared on Yediot Aharonot’s website on November 7 – and it took until November 14 for a media rep (from Reshet Bet) to get one of the Postal Company’s people on the phone. For all I know, of course, the company was inundated with queries from journalists and bloggers on November 8, but I tend to think that this was not the case.

How do I know? Because of the discrepancy in figures: It’s one thing to say a fee is being charged, but every story listed the wrong fee, NIS 38, instead of the actual fee, NIS 34.80. Notice the similarity in those numbers? I could see how a hasty conversation/copy and paste from a website in the initial story could supply the wrong number in the first story, but for that number to still remain as the “official” fee later in the week means that nobody bothered to check with the Postal Company. Whether they backed off on imposing the fee on 2 kg. and smaller packages because of consumer protests is an open question, but I’m pretty sure the fee was NIS 34.80 from the start.

Having worked in both net and print journalism, I am pretty sure a story with an inaccurate number would never have gotten past the editor – probably even the first time, for sure the second time – in a print publication, if there had been no Internet story first. The editor would have made us call up and check the information (the stories that appeared in the print media were basically reporting on the fees AND the net outrage; that actual “investigative journalism” work belonged to the websites that broke the stories).

• Power of the Internet: Talkbacks have an impact, the web as the new public square, yadda yadda. Those are the obvious points, of course, but perhaps a less obvious point is one on the psyche of Israelis. The fee story shows that they can quickly mobilize on an issue when they really feel pain – meaning that they haven’t felt the pain when they don’t mobilize en masse for a cause, no matter how worthy it is.

That’s a lesson politicians might take to heart, and it should be a source of comfort if (may it never come) we are faced with a truly serious national emergency. As for us, the real lesson is – you have until December 31 to take advantage of the old rules. Shop now!

digital.newzgeek.com

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