“We took immediate action”
Borders shut, flights grounded. Marina Bartetzko-Meyer, Head of Asendia Switzerland (ASCH), on the unprecedented situation international mail has found itself faced with during the coronavirus crisis.
The shops were closed for a long time. Did you end up ordering more online?
Given the precarious situation with parcel deliveries, I avoided ordering things online, and pretty much “banned” my daughters from buying unnecessary stuff online too. Recently, though, the inner tube on my daughter’s bike got punctured, so we did make an exception for that.
The Swiss order a lot of stuff abroad. International online retail is booming. What effects has the coronavirus crisis had on the importing and exporting of letters and small goods?
We have seen a 10% increase in both export and import volumes for small good consignments in Europe because of coronavirus. When the shutdown warnings from airlines started coming in, we took immediate action: we were one of the first postal organizations to temporarily stop accepting any mail consignments for export. And this obviously entailed a certain amount of risk for us. After all, nobody knew at this point how long it would be before the majority of passenger flights would end up staying grounded.
So why did we need to take this step?
Seeing as passenger flight connections were being halted on a day-to-day basis, which meant transporting postal consignments was no longer possible either, we wanted to continue being a reliable partner for our customers. We managed to do this through transparency and by ensuring regular, proactive communication with our customers. As an alternative, our customers were still able to use the URGENT courier service. More importantly, there is no way we would have had as much storage capacity if we hadn’t taken this step. And our actions were vindicated: just two days later, the final passenger flights were grounded, and the borders closed.
How many countries did you stop delivering to?
We stopped delivering to 84% of the countries we would normally deliver to, which in fact affected only 20% of our overall volume. This is because we use lorries to deliver to neighbouring countries. For all those European destinations we previously delivered to by air, we switched over to lorry deliveries where possible.
Are you now paying the price for the fact that international consignments are sent by passenger planes and not freight aircraft?
The main reason we use passenger planes to deliver mail is that these daily connections are the only way we can reach the majority of our destinations from Switzerland. What’s more, postal consignments delivered by any state postal organization benefit from special transport and customs terms based on the International Postal Union (IPU) treaty. This treaty provides for attractive prices for the international delivery of mail on passenger planes. Thanks to this network of flights, we have always been able to provide a global public service. The transporting of mail by freight aircraft is governed by more regulations and is indeed costlier, and Swiss private customers and business customers would end up having to foot the bill.
What impact has coronavirus had on the work of employees?
To protect our employees, we first enforced the hygiene regulations set out by the Federal Office of Public Health at both our Geneva and Rümlang sites, and we also asked our staff to work from home where possible. For exports, we had to ensure that grounded consignments could be diverted using special transport services or returned to sender. It was also important, and remains important even now, to find new, alternative flight connections. This means a lot more work than usual. For imports, the stopping of flights meant that consignments were no longer arriving in Switzerland on a regular basis, but in waves.
What does that mean exactly?
There is a huge volume of goods in China that is ready to be delivered, but because of a lack of transport capacity, it cannot be flown in. This is why China Post is continuing to look for alternatives. Lately, these have even involved China sending goods by train or by ship to Europe. These consignments then reach the international letter center by lorry directly. Seeing as the goods are not prepared and pre-sorted as is usual by our partner Swissport, this means a huge change for our employees, and requires a great deal of flexibility.
And how have customers responded to these tougher conditions?
We have seen all sorts of different reactions. At the beginning of the crisis especially, our sales team came under a lot of pressure. Later on, our international customer service department was pretty much inundated. Our sales team is constantly working with our business customers to try and find solutions.
What does the gradual relaxation of lockdown measures mean for ASCH?
That doesn’t actually have much of an impact on our business. We mainly base what we do on the international situation. While flight capacity remains limited, and certain countries still have their own restrictions, we cannot go about exports like business as usual. It will be fascinating to see whether the Swiss will continue to order lots of goods abroad.
Asendia Switzerland (ASCH) is a PostMail profit center that imports and exports letters weighing up to 2 kg, offers standardized and special delivery solutions for promotional mail, business correspondence, small goods and newspapers. With the grounding of all flights and border closures, ASCH was hit especially hard by the coronavirus crisis. In fact, it experienced nearly a 50% fall in letter and small goods imports. Following our decision to temporarily stop accepting mail, 89 countries are now open again. The mailing volume amounts to 98% (letters and parcels combined). However, the delivery times specified cannot always be met at present.