What Connects Armistice Day and Online Shopping?

¿by: Steve Hawker

In September of this year, I watched my television with horror. Young British lions in Basra were baling out of a Warrior armoured vehicle that was engulfed in flames, in the face of an angry mob armed with petrol bombs. A few weeks earlier, three young men from the same regiment had died in a roadside bomb explosion in Al Amarah.

I would like to contrast these dreadful incidents with the way that some British online shopkeepers support our troops serving their country overseas.

As Christmas approaches, many members of the armed forces, who are serving abroad with and without their families, will turn to the Internet to buy their presents. When far from home, short of time and under real pressure, there is something comforting about buying Christmas presents on a British ¿high street¿, albeit a virtual British ¿high street¿.

The lack of support from shopkeepers centres on the British Forces Post Office (BFPO) system. Not on the system itself, which performs heroically in moving letters and parcels quickly and safely to remote and hostile parts of the globe. The problems lie with online shopkeepers not working with the BFPO system largely, I suspect, due to a lack of knowledge about how the system operates.

The first problem is that Service men and women serving abroad cannot feel confident that all British online shops will supply them via the BFPO. This means that, on a shop by shop basis, they must read through each and every delivery policy before placing their orders.

Our sailors, soldiers and airmen simply do not have the time or energy to read ¿small print¿, especially when they are on active duty. They should be able to assume that all shops ¿back home¿ will supply them with goods overseas without question.

Currently, some shopkeepers state in their delivery policies that they will not supply BFPO addresses. Some shopkeepers say that they will supply BFPO addresses, albeit with package content, size and weight limits. Some shopkeepers say that they will supply BFPO addresses, but at additional cost relative to UK mainland delivery. The vast majority of shopkeepers say absolutely nothing about BFPO delivery on their sites! With very few exceptions, these policies and omissions are unacceptable.

I venture to suggest that British online shopkeepers should display the slogan ¿We supply our Armed Forces overseas¿ proudly on their home pages, in recognition of the onerous and unpleasant duties that our Service men and women perform on our behalf. For eHawker's part, we list clearly which of our merchants will supply BFPO addresses.

The current situation creates a good deal of uncertainty in military minds. And, just like we civilians, if there is one thing that puts you off buying online, it is uncertainty. No soldier serving in Iraq, the Balkans or Afghanistan wants to hear that their goods have been ¿returned to sender¿ because the merchant failed to work with BFPO. Having to chase return notes and refunds is hassle enough for those of us who are lucky enough not to be dodging rioters, roadside bombs and ricochets on a daily basis.

What I have said thus far assumes that shopkeepers have allowed Forces' folk and their partners to place orders online. Apart from the misunderstandings to do with BFPO delivery procedures, most sites still fail to cater for the unusual BFPO address format. BFPO addresses are written as: Number, Rank, Name; Sub-unit or Department; Main Unit; BFPO number. The important thing to note here is that BFPO addresses overseas lack conventional UK post codes.

It seems that many online shopkeepers are unaware of this fact. Too many web sites insist on the entry of a UK post code and refuse to take orders without them. To ensure that our Forces serving overseas feel appreciated, online shopkeepers should ensure that their web sites cater fully for BFPO addresses, ideally by appending ¿/BFPO Number¿ to the phrase ¿Post Code/Zip Code¿.

To aid shopkeepers¿ understanding, here are the BFPO, Royal Mail and Parcelforce web sites. On these sites, shopkeepers will find information on setting up private courier contracts with BFPO, using civilian Post Offices for delivery and definitive information on BFPO address formats.

Yes, modifying existing online shops will require investments in time and money. However, these investments will remove another, largely unreported form of discrimination. New online shops should build compatible means of BFPO delivery and BFPO address formats into their site designs from day one.

Why should shopkeepers make these investments? Well, because the Forces community living overseas likes to shop in familiar British stores. Christmas, in particular, is a time when military folk abroad think of familiar things at home.

Also, our young men and women in uniform have disposable income to spend; income that will be spent in German or Cypriot shops, for example, if it isn¿t spent in online British shops.

Lastly, these loyal young lions and lionesses will return to the UK one-day - on leave, on courses, on postings and at the end of their Service lives.

If this still isn¿t enough to spur British online shopkeepers to action, I ask them to remember the debt of gratitude that we owe to all of our lion-hearted Forces, present and past: a debt that we remember with pride by wearing poppies on the 11th day of November every year - Armistice Day.

About The Author

Steve Hawker is a partner at http://www.ehawker.co.uk ¿ Steve Hawker 2005. All rights reserved. This article must be reproduced in its entirity, including this biography.

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