Snail Mail Gets Slower

The U.S. Postal Service has been obliged to do some belt-tightening, and that means snail mail is about to get slower, as Fox News reports:

The U.S. Postal Service, having lost 29 percent of its first-class mail volume in the last decade, will slow its delivery service beginning next spring — the first time in 40 years — in an effort to eliminate nearly $3 billion in costs for the cash-strapped agency. 

“We have to do this in order for the Postal Service to become financially viable,” said David E. Williams, vice president of network operations for USPS, who noted Monday that the organization expects to have a $14 billion debt this year.

“We are adjusting operational realities to the current market,” he said, adding that the trend is toward another 47 percent drop in volume between now and 2020.

On the one hand, some will complain that the Postal Service shouldn’t be getting slower in the digital age, especially as they’re preparing to increase the price of stamps by another penny in January.  On the other hand, a cyber-savvy populace accustomed to sending instant electronic mail from their telephones while they’re driving (AAAAAAARGGGGH!) may find themselves wondering who cares if fossilized hardcopy mail shows up a couple of days slower.

There will be some ramifications from slower first-class mail:

The reduction in turnaround time could slow everything from check payments to Netflix’s DVDs-by-mail, add costs to mail-order prescription drugs, and threaten the existence of newspapers and time-sensitive magazines delivered by postal carrier to far-flung suburban and rural communities.

That birthday card mailed first-class to Mom also could arrive a day or two late, if people don’t plan ahead.

Williams said that instead of having a 6 to 6 1/2-hour operating window, it will expand to 16-20 hours in order to reduce the pieces of equipment needed in the network. As a result, the Postal Service will lose 252 of the 461 mail processing centers across the country and 28,000 jobs will be cut by the end of 2012.

On the bright side, a lot fewer people are getting Netflix DVDs in the mail these days.  That’s a cruel jest at the expense of Netflix’s pricing controversy, but it also sums up the USPS dilemma in a nutshell.  Why should companies be spending a fortune to mail rental DVDs to customers when streaming video – an adolescent technology well on its way to maturity – is faster, more convenient to the customer, and will ultimately involve lower infrastructure costs?

The Postal Service justly occupies a storied position in American history.  In an earlier time, the ability to send first-class mail across a vast nation, quickly and reliably, was a marvel.  Now the Postal Service confronts both a reduction in demand, an inflexible quasi-governmental business model, and immense labor costs.  There are popular private-sector alternatives for quickly shipping items overnight or second-day, and the Postal Service will continue offering premium express mail services.

Is the tremendous cost of existing first-class delivery service (28,000 postal employee jobs!) something that can still be folded into the rates charged to a broader population that increasingly forgets to check its mailbox, belatedly discovering the odd bit of meaningful mail folder into a thick sheaf of pizza coupons? 

Of course, the reduced speed of mail delivery will only make electronic communication alternatives more attractive:

“It’s a potentially major change, but I don’t think consumers are focused on it and it won’t register until the service goes away,” said Jim Corridore, analyst with S&P Capital IQ, who tracks the shipping industry. “Over time, to the extent the customer service experience gets worse, it will only increase the shift away from mail to alternatives. There’s almost nothing you can’t do online that you can do by mail.”

There was no way to bury that truth within the cost of a stamp any more, and no appetite for massive taxpayer bailouts of the Postal Service.


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