How HE is coping with students’ online shopping habits

Universities are overhauling their postal operations from paper-based to digital in a bid to provide a fast, accurate and effective service

By Ryan Higginson, Vice President Global Inside Sales, SMB Solutions, Pitney Bowes

As students head back to university for a new term after a few weeks of indulgence – and laundry – at home, facilities and post room managers breathe a sigh of relief that the pre-Christmas frenzy of online shopping deliveries is over. But students’ online shopping, and the post room challenges, are far from over – after all, the January online sales shopping parcels have arrived, and the new season’s collections ready to order, resulting in more parcels. Ecommerce isn’t so much a boom as a constant, and this is reflected in the global parcel market volumes which have grown steadily year-on-year since 2009 at an average of 6.2%*. 

Online shopping is a great fit with students’ lifestyles: for the cash-strapped student, it offers the ability to find a bargain, and for those caught up in lectures and tutorials, it provides a convenient way to buy everything from stationery to text books to clothing, avoiding checkout queues. It also enables them to buy products from overseas, offering a greater choice of products, often at a lower cost; and it offers immediacy, so if they have seen an item in their social media feeds, they can buy it instantly – research shows that 28% of 18- to 24-year olds visit social media sites for inspiration when searching for products**.


This shopping behaviour places a burden on facilities and post room managers at universities and colleges across the world: handling high volumes of incoming parcels, and dealing with thousands of individual recipients across different locations, demands streamlined, integrated, secure and efficient parcel management. Add to this pressure the fact that not all parcels consist of shopping -some packages may be time-sensitive, perhaps including medical supplies or personal documents – and the need to protect data and retain high levels of security, and the enormity of the task becomes clear.

Some universities and colleges have overhauled their postal operations moving from paper-based to digital systems in a bid to provide a fast, accurate and effective service to their students. These establishments manage inbound physical post using innovative, often cloud-based, digital platforms which allow them to control, track and distribute high-volume parcels, time-sensitive packages and seasonal fluctuations in volume.

A paper system doesn’t work. You need something more professional to make it efficient

When the University of Liverpool in the UK’s North West created new student reception centres to meet modern demands, they needed a new method of managing large volumes of inbound student mail. ‘A paper system doesn’t work. You need something more professional to make it efficient,’ says Niki Horobin, Hall Operations Manager.

The university brought in package tracking software, to automate package handling and to ensure full accountability for parcels until they are picked up by students. Barcode readers, electronic signature capture, and tracking and reporting functions have brought post operations into the digital age to meet the expectations of today’s students. ‘If a courier company emails a student to say that a parcel has arrived before it has actually arrived, and the student comes looking for it, I have the information there in black and white. There’s no question of human error. And 10 times out of 10, the parcel turns up in a few minutes or a few hours,’ Niki says.

Gains are made in efficiency and employee productivity too, as parcel management runs much more effectively than paper-based systems.  The parcels are scanned in, and emails go out to the students automatically.

De Montfort University in the East of England has also adopted a digital platform to manage and track incoming parcels. Items are scanned into the system upon arrival at the university’s post room. Outstanding deliveries are then transferred onto handheld barcode scanners that are used to complete deliveries across the campus. The software then automatically generates the delivery route, allowing the user to record successful, attempted and refused deliveries along the way. Data is transferred to the tracking system so that it is available when status enquiries are made. The university uses two electric vans to transport the post to more than 20 buildings across the campus. The trajectory of these parcels can then be tracked by staff in the post room, who can also generate graphs and reports that highlight peak delivery times.

Online retail sales in the UK, Germany and France are forecast to reach £185.44 billion (€219.44 billion) in 2016, up from £132.05 billion or €156.28 billion just two years earlier***. This growth fuels the increase in parcel volume, and will continue to drive the transformation of inbound postal operations. This remains a huge challenge, especially with those responsible for providing services to thousands of individuals across different sites. As the University of Liverpool and De Montfort University have demonstrated, digital, often cloud-based platforms which integrate with physical operations provide the security, precision and flexibility to cope with this change.


Figures from Accenture research and insights 2015: Achieving high performance in the postal industry
** Figures from Pitney Bowes online shopping survey 2015  
*** Research by RetailMeNot Inc 


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