Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What's Going to Happen When the Post Office Dies?

When I got back to Anchorage I went to the post office to pick up our held mail.  It was about 4pm.  There were about 14 people in line ahead of me.  There was one clerk, who kept going into the back so there was no one behind the counter for minutes at a time.  The crowd was getting longer. 

I understand that for most government agencies that face private competition (like schools) the private companies can skim the most lucrative and easy to handle business and leave the government with the more expensive and difficult business.  Private schools don't have to take every student, and you know that parents who pay for their kids' education are going to take more interest in their kids' schooling.  Fedex and UPS have taken the high end quick delivery business and left the post office with expensive daily to your door delivery for everyone.  So the post office can't use its express mail profits to help cover home delivery, because the others are taking much of that profit.  And we end up with post offices with nobody behind the counter.  But they really have to take care of customers and can't leave them waiting in line like this.

I thought about just shouting out so the people in the back could hear, "DOES ANYBODY WORK HERE?"  Everyone else looked so accepting of this pitiful service.  But when someone else came to the front (the only clerk was gone again) to talk to the person at the counter, I got out of line and went up to him, and more politely said, "Is there anyone back there who could help out?  There are all these people in line (more had piled in behind me) and NO ONE is out front here.  I just need to pick up mail and so do others."  He said he was a carrier and on his way home, but he'd get the manager.  Shortly thereafter a man came out, looked concerned, and asked for the people picking up mail.  About five of us came over and I got out much faster.

But they shouldn't need customers telling them.  They should have a way of sending someone up front when the line gets too long.  Queueing theory is an old science and all the  retail companies larger than 5 employees use it.  It has formulas for when you need to send more people out to keep customer from waiting more than a predetermined 'acceptable' wait time.

We used to have good post office service in Alaska.  But this was really pitiful.  (OK, I know you Chicago readers wonder what I'm complaining about since they didn't throw out my mail, but we're used to better.)

Oh yeah.  When the post office dies, UPS and Fedex will be able to raise their prices and speciality businesses may be willing to deliver regular envelopes, birthday cards, grandkids' paintings, love letters, etc.   But the price will be like express mail. And people who live far away (Alaskans, are you listening?  Ted is gone) might not get any kind of service.  And Benjamin Franklin will roll over in his grave.

[UPDATE Feb. 3, 2011 - Here's a piece from NPR's Talk of the Nation on the joys of snail mail.]

Digital mail already does much of what the post office did and we will survive.  And the gap between the haves and have nots will grow.  I'm not sure what this will do to US businesses in competition with foreign businesses that still have government postal service.  And we'll be a step closer to virtual and further from natural.

Queueing is also a great word to know if you play scrabble.


  1. That looks like the Northway PO. They have some good people but several retired year before last and they were not replaced. Even during Christmas it was not unusual to have only 1 clerk. Sometimes I feel sorry for the clerks having to put up with people that are not prepared when they arrive and have to be instructed in how to mail things.
    I'm afraid it is only going to get worse

  2. The reason the service is declining is because high level management is trying to kill the USPS. The objective is full privatization. They are not replacing people who retire. They are shutting early on Saturday. The biggest profit day. Management is extremely top heavy.

    Perhaps if you interview a member of the Local Clerk's Union you will understand the situation better. You may also be interested to know that FEDX uses the USPS to deliver a large portion of their packages.

  3. Anon 10:51am - Yes it's Russian Jack Station on Northway. And they used have good service.

    Anon 11:33 thanks for your contribution explaining things. I'll put the Local Clerks Union on my todo list.

  4. If you look back at the 19th century, mail delivery (in cities) was not daily, but several times per day. I've seen it described as up to 5 times per day.

    And that was before anyone had invented the junk-mail flyer, and when Sears was one of the new catalogs. You posit express service once subsidizing daily delivery, but today it's junk-mail that pays most of the USPS bills.

    My expectation is that we'll see USPS drop Saturday, then drop Tuesday and Thursday, and eventually drop home delivery altogether.

    The only change I can imagine to change that path is to find the next "junk-mail" cash cow. Perhaps the next "Netflix", but with a product that can't easily be sent over the Internet.

  5. I hand write about six letters a month-- I watch the USPS shut down services and I cringe because I love letter writing as an art. Sadly, it will probably go the way of the carrier pigeon. I think that FEDEX and some of those places will replace it at a higher expense. How much am I willing to spend to send my letters?

  6. After returning from a 3-day trip to find a pile of bills, junk-mail, and one magazine in my post box... I had another thought on this subject.

    For each of those three days, the USPS diligently visited my mailbox, at no cost to me, despite me being out of town. They did the same numerous times last year, despite my dozen similar multi-day trips, plus 6 of the 7 days when I when away for a full week.

    Which for me begot the question, do I really need mail service 6 days a week? Could I live with 3? Or 2?

    I can't imagine any common scenarios where my life would change if my mail was only delivered on Mondays and Thursdays. Anything of more urgency, and people send me letters via FedEx.

    So how's this for a solution to keeping the USPS in business. Drop home delivery to 2 days per week for free. Anyone who'd like more frequent service can pay $15/month.

    $15/month is less than the weekly service to pick up trash and recycling. It's less than the monthly standard Netflix service (which is my biggest use of USPS these days).

    That should fix the USPS funding gap for a few decades, until paper-based mail is completely archaic and unecessary.

  7. ever tried living on 2 days a week paycheck?


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