Royal Mail has launched a digital-stamp service that allows businesses to design and print personalised postage marks.
Customers can create the SmartStamps on their desktop computer, pay for the postage over the Internet, and then print them directly onto envelopes from a normal printer. The SmartStamp software can also be used with a Microsoft Outlook address book
Although the software is provided free, businesses subscribe to the service for £4.99 a month, or £49.99 a year, and credit their account for postage -- as companies currently do with franking machines. When the user is ready to pay, they connect to the Internet and, by submitting their order, the cost of the stamps printed is deducted from their account.
The digital franks are not the same as traditional stamps and businesses can use their own logos, designs, message or photos.
The Royal Mail said the service is a cost-effective way for small businesses to differentiate themselves from competitors.
Alison White, Royal Mail's head of small business and consumer, said in a statement: "SmartStamp will suit anyone working within a small or home office. If you send out a few items per day, or more, then we recommend that you seriously consider using SmartStamp."
Hemingway design was one of the companies involved in testing the service, and used images of a collection of straw donkeys and a prototype of a digital radio.
A spokeswoman for Royal Mail would not reveal the cost of the project and said that while a number of businesses have been testing the service, it is "too early to put a number on subscribers".