By Multimedia Producer James Hockaday
Small business owners are feeling under pressure as they experience a knock-on effect of a series of Royal Mail strikes planned for December.
Many independent retailers have made the decision to switch to more expensive and sometimes less reliable couriers, while some say orders are lower than usual for this period.
Customers have been urged to get their shopping in early to ensure packages arrive before Christmas Day and to avoid disappointment.
Deliveries are likely to be delayed, as Royal Mail workers are set to strike on 9, 11, 14, 16, 23 and Christmas Eve, following a series of walkouts over pay and conditions stretching back to August.
Despite the inconvenience, some small business owners are still supportive of striking postal staff and say they are right to ask for a better deal.
Among them is Martin Gerhard, who has reluctantly switched to private couriers to ensure his items arrive on time.
Some things are out of his control, as Boostology, his online store selling eco-friendly, handmade, and vegan gifts, is facing delayed deliveries from suppliers.
He told ITV News: “For padded envelopes, we’d normally spend £1.50 with the Royal Mail sending those, the cheapest I can get for a padded envelope is £3.20 at the moment.
“Parcels, we’ll normally spend about £3 with the Royal Mail, we’re currently paying anywhere from £3.20 to £4.80 with the couriers, so it’s actually quite a big difference.
“Another downside is that actually Royal Mail are the best of the bunch normally— not obviously at the moment— but I’ve been using them for years and never had any lost parcels or any issues with them whatsoever.
"I don’t really want to use couriers because their track record doesn’t tend to be as good. I’ve got no choice, because you can’t say to customers ‘oh we’re not sure if your parcel’s going to turn up’."
With inflation running at 11.1%, Mr Gerhard, who is based in London, says parts to make his products and the price of couriers mean his business is taking a hit.
“We can’t really put up prices on our website because of the cost of living crisis, people are not going to be willing to pay more for the same product. But we’re having to pay more for them and to deliver them, so we’re being squeezed from every angle."
To make matters worse, Mr Gerhard was recently targeted by a scam and lost £1,000 from his business, and he has no hope of a replacement bank card arriving before the New Year via Royal Mail.
While he's waiting, he's been putting everything on a credit card at 30% interest.
Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know
Despite this, Mr Gerhard says he backs strikers, who have been asking for an above-inflation pay-rise since February, back when it was sitting in the region of 5-7%.
"They work hard and they do a really good job, unlike some couriers they don’t just fling your parcels on the floor or fling them in a hedge and run away, they give you a personalised service even though they are busy.
"So they do deserve a wage rise, but unfortunately that also means if they’re going to continue going for that, that small businesses are going to be affected as well.”
Zoe Lacey, who runs online stationery shop Pretty Post, said that she's told customers her Christmas delivery cut-off is 10 December.
She said she wasn’t too worried about the pre-Christmas rush, adding: “There is a lot of panic at the moment, it seems like everyone is losing their minds over the last couple of days.
“We’ve got plenty of time for things to work their way through the system. As long as everyone is up to date on when they should be posting things, I think we’re going to be okay.”
Asked what she thinks of striking postal workers, she said: “I’m fully behind them, I really am, I’ve said all along that while it is inconvenient, strikes are supposed to be inconvenient."
Abhilash Jobanputra, who runs tea store brand Chai Guys, worries about the impact strikes will have on his online shop.
"It potentially affects our reputation and puts a strain on us in terms of customer service. We need to make sure our customers are responded to as soon as possible because for some it might be the first time purchasing with us and we don't want to risk our reputation.
Ann Edwards, who sells vintage Japanese kimonos, bags, fans and accessories through her site, Mame Huku said: "It’s bad enough getting the work, customers and orders, and then not actually being able to ship them before Christmas is just insanity.
“It feels like we’re living in the new Dark Ages and we’re all just accepting this," added Ms Edwards.
“I honestly think that people aren’t going to be ordering that much. I did have an email from one client saying can you guarantee that it will get there by Christmas.”
Suggesting that planned strikes could spell a boost for the high street, she said: “I wonder whether we all might have to go analogue.
"Instead of us all ordering online we can actually go back into a shop and be old fashioned about it – see it, buy it, take it home. At least you know you’ve got it."
The Communication Workers Union (CWU) said Royal Mail's proposals to alter the way the postal system worked would turn it into "a gig economy-style parcel courier, reliant on casual labour".
It said the latest pay offer of 9%, spread across two years, still falls behind inflation, but Royal Mail has said it is its "best and final offer".
It said the package also includes and offer to develop a new profit share scheme for employees, and making voluntary redundancy terms more generous.