Stop Junk Mail

The Science of Junk Busting

Guide to Stamping Out Junk Mail

Royal Mail's Door-to-Door Opt-Out

Royal Mail's Door-to-Door Opt-Out is a free service that will stop unsolicited, unaddressed mail delivered by the postman. Signing up to the scheme is the single most effective measure you can take to reduce junk mail.

The basics

Royal Mail has never done much to promote its opt-out scheme for leaflets. As a result few people know it even exists. Yet, the opt-out scheme will prevent more leaflets than any of the other opt-outs discussed in this guide. We're not talking about huge numbers; according to Royal Mail's latest figures the company distributes just under 2.5 door-drops per week to the average household. The leaflets are mostly from companies such as Virgin Media, BT, Sky, TalkTalk, Farmfoods, Domino's Pizza, Direct Line and Morrisons.

To register with the opt-out scheme you first need to ask Royal Mail for an 'opt-out form'. You can do so by sending and e-mail to optout@royalmail.com or by tapping your name and addressed into Junk Buster. Using Junk Buster, you can contact up to five other opt-out schemes at the same time.

If you request the opt-out form via e-mail (or Junk Buster) you'll get the form sent to you via e-mail, which means you'll need to print the form yourself. If you prefer to get the form in the post you can phone the team administering the opt-out scheme on 01865 796 964 or 01865 796 988. Alternatively, you can write to:

Freepost RSTR-YCYS-TGLJ
Door-to-door opt-outs
Royal Mail
Kingsmead House
Oxpens Road
OXFORD
OX1 1AA

Don't give them your e-mail address

Some things to be aware of…

The Door-to-Door Opt-Out isn't a very customer-friendly scheme:

'No Junk Mail' signs

An photo showing leaflets sticking out of a letterbox with a 'No Junk Mail' sign.
Postmen have to deliver leaflets to people with a 'No Junk Mail' sign.

The official reason for the existence of the Door-to-Door Opt-Out is that Royal Mail wants to ensure that people make an 'informed decision' about stopping unaddressed, unsolicited leaflets. As far as I'm aware Royal Mail is the only postal service in the world to have such a noble policy; in other countries you can simply stop unsolicited, unaddressed mail items by placing a 'No Junk Mail' sign on your door. Royal Mail, however, instructs postmen to ignore 'No Junk Mail' signs.

This is bad news for people who have no need for unsolicited leaflets. Opt-out schemes for unaddressed junk mail only makes sense if they cover all unaddressed junk mail. Unsurprisingly, this is isn't the case; the Door-to-Door Opt-Out only covers about 25 to 50% (depending on how you define 'unaddressed mail'). To resolve this shortcoming the Direct Marketing Association set up a second opt-out service for unaddressed junk mail in 2008; the rather obscure Your Choice scheme. Your Choice will prevent only a handful of leaflets a year; and so you still need to put a 'No Junk Mail' sign on your door to stop unaddressed junk mail not covered by the two opt-out schemes. That's three things you need to do just to stop leaflets you never asked for in the first place…

Clearly, it would be a lot easier if Royal Mail would simply respect 'No Junk Mail' signs. It's difficult not to see the Door-to-Door Opt-Out (and Your Choice) as an attempt to making reducing junk mail more difficult.


'To the Occupier' junk mail

The Door-to-Door Opt-Out stops mail items that don't include a postal address. It will therefore not necessarily stop mail with a generic addressee, such as 'To the Occupier' or 'To the Pizza Lover'.

To illustrate the point, items addressed to a generic addressee but without an address will be prevented by the Door-to-Door Opt-Out:

To the Occupier

However, items that do include an address will still be delivered:

To the Occupier
10 Downing Street
LONDON
SW1A 2AA

The logic is that Royal Mail has a legal obligation to deliver all mail with a 'delivery point'. Whether or not mail items have an addressee is irrelevant; Royal Mail delivers mail to addresses, not to addressees. 'To the Occupier' mail with an address therefore is addressed junk mail, and should be covered by the opt-out scheme for addressed junk mail: the Mailing Preference Service. (And guess what… the Mailing Preference Service doesn't stop junk mail with a generic addressee!)

Warnings… or 'scare tactics'?

The e-mail / letter Royal Mail sends with its opt-out form contains the following warning about the consequences of opting out:

Some of the items that we deliver may contain important information issued by local and central Government departments, for example materials relating to elections. Because we cannot legally separate these items from the others we deliver - such as advertising offers or leaflets - you will not receive these if you choose to opt out.

An image showing the cover of the 'Swine Flu' leaflet produced by the Department for Health
The 'Swine Flu' leaflet was delivered to each and every household in the country, including those registered with the Door-to-Door Opt-Out.

This warning has been around since 2006 (at the time PostWatch - long since abolished - took offense) and has caused a fair amount of confusion. What doesn't help is that Royal Mail has changed the warning a couple of times. Until recently (that is, June 2013) the opt-out form stated that “an alternative door-to-door service” is used if central or local government really need to post a leaflet to every household in a certain area and that “election materials” would still will be delivered. In other words, even households that are opted out would get unaddressed mail items such as the 'Swine Flu' leaflet produced by the Department of Health in May 2009 and so-called 'election communications'.

It's unclear why Royal Mail is now claiming that it “cannot legally separate”what it calls “important information” (I've written to them to ask for clarification).

Should you be worried?

Many people seem to be put off by Royal Mail's warnings. According to the company's own figures roughly half of all households who request an opt-out form never return it (see page 23 of Direct marketing material waste prevention, published by Royal Mail and the Direct Marketing Association in 2009).

Unfortunately, Royal Mail doesn't give us a clue as to how much “important information” is distributed via its door-to-door service. I suspect that the reason is that hardly any “important information” is delivered via this scheme. The 'Swine Flu' leaflet is the only example I can think of - and that leaflet was produced more than four years ago.

To enable you to make an informed decision about stopping unsolicited, unaddressed mail items I've been keeping track of all unaddressed mail items delivered by Royal Mail to my address. Since January 2011 I've scanned every piece of unaddressed mail I got from my postie and given it one of three labels: commercial, non-commercial; or charitable.

Category Number
Source: Royal Junk Mail
Commercial 337
Charitable 44
Non-Commercial 23

It's not proper science; it only shows the stuff that's coming through my letter box (and Norwich isn't necessary representative for the rest of the UK). But, at least it gives you an idea of what unaddressed mail items Royal Mail distributes. And, it does suggest that Royal Mail distributes very few non-commercial leaflets indeed. I get the odd magazine published by my local Council ('Your Norfolk'), and that's about it. If you enjoy reading such self-congratulatory propaganda publications, and if your Council's magazine happens to be distributed by Royal Mail, you'll have to consider if not getting the magazine through the door weighs up against not receiving all those leaflets from Domino Pizzas, Virgin Media, Farmfoods and the like.


The obsession with paper opt-out forms

According to Royal Mail, signing up to the Door-to-Door Opt-Out is “extremely simple”. I'm not sure how they quantify the intensifier “extremely”. It seems quite obvious that registering with the Mailing Preference Service, for example, is a lot easier. Instead of using a two-step process and paper opt-out forms the opt-out scheme for addressed junk mail simply allows you to sign up online. Maybe Royal Mail feels that signing up to the Mailing Preference Service is “very extremely simple”…

Interestingly, Royal Mail claims that they're still using paper opt-out forms for “security reasons”. According to its website they want “to verify that those resident at the address have requested the opt out.”. I guess this means that they're worried that people might start opting out random addresses. Whatever their thinking, Royal Mail's security measures are rubbish. If you get the opt-out form sent to you via e-mail you can return it with anyone's name and address on it - at no point is anything being verified. It seems that Royal Mail's obsession with long-winded processes and paper forms has got nothing to do with security, and everything with discouraging people to opt out.

As Royal Mail doesn't in fact verify anything you can simply download the opt-out form; complete it; and send it to Royal Mail. They'll have no way of knowing whether or not you first requested the form.

Merger with Your Choice

There's no good reason not to allow people to register with the Royal Mail's opt-out service online. We can use the Royal Mail website to buy stamps; redirect our mail; and arrange redeliveries - yet we're not allowed do something as trivial as opting out of receiving unsolicited leaflets.

Good news is that you might be able to opt out online at some point. In fact, you should have been able to do so for well over a year. In November 2011, it was announced that Government had forced the junk mail industry to merge the Door-to-Door Opt-Out with the Your Choice scheme. As it goes, just before the website was due to be launched, in April 2012, the Direct Marketing Association made some impossible last minute demands, and Government has since kept quiet about the initiative. If you want to learn more about the new opt-out scheme and / or understand more about how industry self-regulation works, I've written about the saga in the Diary:

And, the Beeb also picked up on the story:

But what about jobs and stamp prices?

Some people feel reluctant to stop leaflets delivered by Royal Mail because doing so would mean the company would have even less mail to deliver. There's no denying that junk mail is a lucrative business for Royal Mail, and concerns about stamp prices, jobs and the universal service obligation are perfectly legitimate. However, they're not arguments in favour of force-feeding people unwanted, unsolicited mail.

In fact, if you're not interested in unsolicited leaflets you're doing Royal Mail a favour by opting out. The companies that hire Royal Mail's services don't want to waste money and resources on targeting people who aren't interested. One of the reasons why junk mail volumes have declined in recent years is that online advertising is much more efficient. In other words, 'carpet bombing' is no longer a sustainable, long term business strategy.

If you don't want to take my word for it you might want to read the following quote from the e-mail (or letter) Royal Mail sends with opt-out form:

We are pleased to receive your request because we only wish to deliver unaddressed mail to recipients who are interested in receiving such items.

This improves our service to advertisers and means that they only produce items for those who are interested, reducing the environmental impact of their mailings and making them more effective.

It's your decision. If you feel only mildly annoyed when another 'Dear Householder' letter from Virgin Media arrives and you care greatly about Royal Mail then the Door-to-Door Opt-Out is probably not for you. However, if you feel that all those leaflets are wasteful and you never respond to unsolicited offers you should sign up. Putting up with junk mail in the hope that stamp prices might not go up by another 30% next April is as silly as campaigning for the return of telephone operators.

Complaints

Over the years I've received hundreds of complaints from people who continue to receive unaddressed mail items delivered by Royal Mail after registering with the Door-to-Door Opt-Out. Although the scheme seems to work better than it did a couple of years ago there are still many people who'll find the 'opt out experience' rather crappy.

If you've opted out and you find you're still getting leaflets from the postman you could try to ringing the opt-out admins (01865 796964). It's not the official route but you'll probably find it's the quickest. They'll be able to confirm whether or not your address has been registered, and if so from what date. If your address has been marked as opted out they'll usually contact your local sorting office to remind them not to deliver unaddressed junk mail to your address.

The official route is to contact Royal Mail's customer services department. All they'll do is pass your e-mail to the above-mentioned opt-out admins, which is why you might as well contact them directly.

The advantage of taking the official route is that Royal Mail will log your complaint. If they continue to deliver unsolicited leaflets to your address after contacting customer services you could continue to work your way through Royal Mail's complaint handling procedure™.

Tips for complainants

The following tips may be useful if you're thinking about lodging a complaint:

Links