Opinion: Postman needs to think outside the mailbox

Monday, Feb. 27, 2012 6:54 AM
Last updated 9:59 AM
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SAVANNAH, Ga. -- Helen Barnes watches for the postman most afternoons.

She knows he’s due around lunchtime. Six days a week, the shuffle out to the mailbox to collect her bills, catalogs and solicitations is part of her routine.

The cornerstones of mail service — daily home and next-day local delivery — are as important to her as fair play in her regular card game and proper seasoning in her soup at lunch.

But even Barnes, my 86-year-old grandmother, acknowledges the U.S. Postal Service’s approach is as antiquated as some of her furniture.

“Most days there’s nothing but junk mail anyway,” she said. “I could do without it some days. But then I guess the exercise is good for me.”

The Postal Service announced plans Thursday to close 223 mail processing centers and eliminate 30,000 jobs. The cuts include the distribution center here in Savannah, which employs more than 200 workers, close to half of which are expected to be laid off sometime this summer. Nationwide, a few thousand retail post offices and their staffs are likely to follow.

The wisdom of this slash-and-burn tactic is debatable. Much of the Postal Service’s financial woes stem from a nonsensical prefunding of retiree health benefits and an overpaid pension fund. The Postal Service’s Inspector General, David Williams, pegs the health benefits “war chest” at $326 billion. The pension fund boasts a $13 billion surplus.

Correct these areas and the USPS won’t shake into oblivion like Polaroid. But you needn’t hold an MBA to recognize the folly of continuing to do business the way you always have when the demand for your main product — first-class mail — drops 27 percent in three years.

Or be a Darwinian scholar to grasp the long-range ramifications of online bill pay, now used by 60 percent of Americans and up 55 percent in the last decade. And the number in growing.

The USPS might not be broke fiscally, but it is broke from a business model standpoint.

Customer backlash

Change comes harder to the Postal Service than to organized religions.

Much of the resistance — in both instances — is due to the faithful.

The USPS has floated ideas like cutting back on the number of delivery days and revamping its service guidelines. Another notion, one unsaid publicly, is to charge a nominal home delivery fee.

The customer base rebuffs all these measures. And because Congress owns the Postal Service, and Congress answers to the customer base, the USPS refuses to evolve.

Never mind that the customer base is made up of the same folks who are doing less and less business with the Postal Service.

Cutting out one day of home delivery per week is the 18-game NFL schedule of the debate; it keeps coming up for consideration. Yet the idea’s mere mention elicits more howls than Rosanne Barr’s rendition of the National Anthem.

Here’s the question all the wailing drowns out: How many of us walk to the end of the driveway to collect our mail from the box six days a week? Unfortunately, no hard research exists.

Yet talk to those who live in an area not served by home delivery — Tybee Island, for instance – and you realize picking up the mail everyday is not as vital to survival as eating, sleeping and breathing.

“”We pick up our mail three times a week, tops,” said Ginny Murphy, who like 90 percent of Tybee residents gets her post via a PO box. “There’s nothing all that time sensitive in there. Maybe you open a birthday card a day late.”

Another option

Tybee provides insight into the home delivery fee notion.

Ostensibly, delivery charges, including mail truck gas, insurance and maintenance, are worked into the postage rate. Yet those sending mail to a PO box don’t get a discount.

And those receiving post through a box must pay to rent the box.

So why couldn’t the Postal Service bill those who get home delivery $3 to $5 a month for the service?

Heresy you say? What about the elderly who lack the mobility to visit a PO box? Or the poor who can’t bear the costs?

Set up a waiver process. There’s no need to put thumb-breakers on the USPS payroll.

The Postal Service’s current crisis is an opportunity for change. The closing of the mail processing centers may be the magic pill, although the job losses are ominous. And changes to the retiree health benefits and pension may lend some sustainability.

But just as my children’s generation will one day largely read newspapers on a computer screen and rent movies exclusively through their TV remotes, their dependence on the Postal Service will shrink.

Finding the most cost-efficient way to serve their needs in the digital age should be the mission. Success will require thinking outside the mailbox.

Comments (7) Add comment
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seenitB4 02/27/12 - 08:51 am
Yeh this is true... Change

Yeh this is true...

Change comes harder to the Postal Service than to organized religions.

but we still need the post office....3 times a week would probably work ok....why not tweak the business.....but don't say goodbye...some need it more than others...esp. the elderly.

Carleton Duvall
Carleton Duvall 02/27/12 - 09:13 am
I am part of the elderly. At

I am part of the elderly. At 87 I am like the lady in the story. My day is not complete without my daily walk to the mailbox at the end of my drive. The importance of it , however, is only in my mind. Seldom do I receive anything of importance in my mail. Most is junk that I deposit in the trash as I return to the back door. I pay all of my bills online so the need for bills in the mail is zilch. In a few years I predict that all bills will be paid the way I pay mine. The suggestions mentioned in the story makes sense to me. What are we waiting on?

Little Lamb
Little Lamb 02/27/12 - 09:13 am
I'm all for three-day-a-week

I'm all for three-day-a-week home mail delivery: Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday.

Little Lamb
Little Lamb 02/27/12 - 09:15 am
Of course, it would be more

Of course, it would be more efficient to open post offices and have mail delivery Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Then all the post office employees could have every Monday off, every Friday off, and a four-day weekend every week! Go ahead and pay them the same salaries while we are at it. What a deal!

madgerman 02/27/12 - 10:45 am
some folks had better think

some folks had better think before they sign up for on-line payments. And the thing they should think about is "what if I want to change banks becuse they just increased the fees for my account". Not quite like a check in the mail. Why is it that people are upset with the USPS people having a decent health plan or a living salary? Talk about class envy. I wonder if the problems at the USPS are brought on by incessant demands of the Congress for donations to the general funds. The letter writter didn't mention that in his ravings.

my.voice 02/27/12 - 04:47 pm
I'd be for a 3 day (excluding

I'd be for a 3 day (excluding overnight priority) week if the Post Office would make some concessions on their side. So far, WE make all the sacrifices:

1 - Stop giving away priority mail boxes like they were candy. You can get online and order a truckload of the stuff, then just throw it away.
2 - Reconsider closing the distribution hubs to guarantee service levels will improve. Eliminating mail delivery days must be followed by better delivery of mail point to point.
3 - Stop commissioning artists for stamp production.
4 - Stop unnecessary funding of things like the tour de FRANCE, as that's a big advertisement bonus.
5 - Stop paying our retirees ridiculous retirement wages because at one time we really did (do) think that money grows on trees.
6 - Put a 5 year freeze on stamp costs.
7 - Study the business models of successful business operations like amazon, ups, FedEx.
8 - 15% cut across the board of all employee salaries, privatize the retirement funds.

rperaza 02/27/12 - 11:16 am
I can go along with my.voice

I can go along with my.voice in many areas. Tour de France sponsorship is totally unneeded. Stamp freeze would also help. And I'm sorry, the salaries of some of these postal workers and their pensions is right up their with Congress voting themselves their own raise. It's postal service, not rocket science.

It took me a few years of convincing, but my retired parents pay all their bills online. My mom has just a few bills that still come by paper cause wants those "in writing"... lol

eb97 02/27/12 - 12:15 pm
If we were to go to Monday,

If we were to go to Monday, Wednesday and Friday mail delivery, this would have to save money for the postal service. The problem area is how they manage these savings. If they continue to spend on high salaries, high retirement packages, designer stamps, etc. then these cut backs would mean nothing.

GaStang22 02/28/12 - 01:49 am
You guys can forget the

You guys can forget the Unions allowing anything logical. Most of this is their fault anyway!!!!!!

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