Communications: First class growth for mail shop: Post, fax and other office needs are obtainable under one roof

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The Independent Online
THE GROWING commercialisation of the Post Office could be good news for a company offering one-stop post, fax and stationery service for small to medium-size businesses. The operation, called Mail Boxes Etc, originated in the United States and is just setting up in the UK.

A pilot store in Marylebone High Street, London, has been open for a few months and the company hopes to have three more - in London and Yorkshire - open by autumn.

The idea began in 1980, when the company spotted a gap in the US market for private mailbox facilities. Although it soon had competitors, Mail Boxes sought to distinguish itself by offering extra business services, such as office supplies ranging from envelopes and stamps to paper and sticking tape.

While customers can use the centre's address for mail - it looks more respectable than a PO box number - they can also check by telephone to learn if they have any post, rather than having to visit the store. In addition, they can have all the benefits of a fax machine, without incurring the set-up and running costs, by using Minute Mail, which the company hails as one of the world's largest public access fax networks.

The company's management believes this formula is responsible for the rapid growth that has seen the operation increase to 57 centres by 1983 and easily exceed the 1,000-centre target it had set for 1990.

It now has more than 2,200 centres in 13 countries around the world, providing office supplies, photocopying and facsimile facilities, and other services.

Serena Lang, UK marketing manager, said the company decided about a year ago that the 'old-fashioned, friendly approach' would be particularly attractive in Britain at a time when traditional post offices were showing signs of moving in the opposite direction, with long queues and the like.

'A Mail Boxes store is something many towns are crying out for. There is currently nowhere that offers the 'one-stop' convenience and service of an MBE. You don't have to queue, we have long opening hours, and you get fast, friendly and efficient service,' said Ms Lang. And Mail Boxes co-operates with Royal Mail, Parcelforce and other carriers to serve its customers, who are typically entrepreneurs and other proprietors of small businesses.

The attraction is that it offers use of the latest equipment to businesses that are paying careful attention to costs.

The Marylebone High Street store has shown steady growth so far and there are plans to add a 24-hour voice-mail facility to its services. Ms Lang hopes this success will encourage entrepreneurs to help the concept expand by becoming franchisees.

Franchising is increasingly seen as an attractive route for business expansion, especially as it has lower failure rates than traditional start-ups. Mail Boxes claims an international success rate for its stores of 97 per cent over five years.

Since banks are notoriously reluctant to lend at the moment - even for well-tried business concepts - Mail Boxes is looking for people with access to ready cash of about pounds 30,000 to open units. Despite this comparatively high investment, which covers a pounds 12,500 franchise fee as well as the cost of fitting out the centre and stocking up with supplies and equipment, it says it has had about 650 inquiries since Christmas.

The company puts particular emphasis on building personal relationships. 'Business customers will come to regard you as a colleague and increasingly put their business your way, while recommending you to others. Individual customers will value the friendly service,' says the company's brochure.

Mail Boxes offers the usual training and back-up plus competitive discounts on supplies, benefits of its advertising, easy access to new product lines and marketing initiatives and the ability to share information with more than 1,600 franchisees around the world.

Mail Boxes Europe, 84 Marylebone High Street, London W1M 3DE. Tel: 071-224 2666.

(Photograph omitted)