People will be able to buy their postage online, without any stamps, for the first time under a new initiative from the Royal Mail. Customers will be able to pay for their postage by credit card over the internet for first-class, second-class and international deliveries.
Each item of mail will be given a special barcode at a post office before being posted in the normal way. Royal Mail said the scheme would improve choice for its customers. The free service will be available 24 hours a day and it is hoped it will reduce queues in post offices.
Postage purchased online will cost no more than a normal stamp.
Royal Mail, whose monopoly on postal deliveries ended at the start of the year, said it believed the service would appeal particularly to home workers and to people who sell goods via eBay and other auction sites.
"We have launched this service in response to demands from the public who want to be able to buy and print their postage online, direct onto an envelope or a label," said Alex Batchelor, its marketing director.
The Royal Mail would not be drawn on how many people it expected to use the service in its first year. But it said that with growing take-up of broadband internet connections, it expected the service to have mass appeal.
Royal Mail's letters business made a £344m profit last year but its post office network has been losing £2m a week.