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September 3, 2015

Is It Time to Fire the Postman?

Ever since the 19th century, when the telegraph came into vogue, people have been looking for a better way to deliver information and goods more efficiently than the US Postal Service. Today’s wired world has created a myriad of electronic delivery systems that do everything from rendering payment, to delivering messages and even packages at the click of a mouse. In today’s blog, I intend to delve into a number of innovative, cost effective delivery options to the USPS, as well as the possibility that in the near future the post office could very well be as dead as the dodo bird.

They Don’t Call it Snail Mail for Nothing

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

The roots of the U.S. Postal Service stretch back to the Second Continental Congress in 1775.  That’s when Ben Franklin, a prominent Philadelphia printer, was appointed as the country’s first Postmaster General.  Since that momentous occasion, the USPS staff has mushroomed to 717,254 federal employees, making it one of the nation’s largest employers.  In 2014, the USPS generated $67.8 billion in revenues.  That sounds impressive until you realize that it represented a $5.5 billion operating loss.  This seems odd when you consider the USPS operates a virtual monopoly when it comes to delivering letters.  Stranger still is the fact that the post office has downsized considerably during the past few years, closing a number of offices as well as reducing the hours they are open.  Of course, the USPS is and always has been a bureaucracy.  That explains a lot.

Unlike the 19th and first half of the 20th century where the USPS had little if any competition, by the latter part of the 20th century when package and overnight delivery was privatized, the days of the Post Office monopoly was over. But the USPS was still alive and kicking, if at a snail’s pace. (They don’t call it snail mail for nothing.)  Sure, since the late 1800s people could use the telegraph and telegram to send messages quickly.  But when one considered the fact that Western Union charged by the word, the telegram was more like Twitter than traditional correspondence.  Short copy was the norm.  Then came the Internet.

We Don’t Need No Stinking Postage

By the mid 1990s, digital technology such as fax and e-mail began to slowly but surely erode the postal service’s hegemony.  Why wait days to deliver the message when anyone with a phone and a modem could send pages replete with photos across the telephone wires in minutes.  (Today we can do this in seconds, but remember how slow dialup connections once were.) Suddenly you didn’t need to pay for postage to send letters, flyers and ad copy across town or around the world. (Spam was born.)  All it took was type, point and click.  Add to this the fact that within the past few years, most businesses and banks have adopted electronic payment systems that allow customers to remit payment at the click of a mouse and it makes the USPS seem a lot like its predecessor, the Pony Express.

The Post Office continues to plod on, however. A number of tech companies such as Netflix still rely on the USPS to ship their products, as do a myriad of other advertisers, many of which we regard as junk mail.  However, as competition grows and technology makes much of what the USPS does seem redundant, will there come a time when the public, not to mention the federal government decides it’s time to put the Postal Service out of its misery?  A quote from Wikipedia sums it up nicely: “Since the 2006 all-time peak mail volume,[5] after which Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act,[6] (which mandated $5.5 billion per year to be paid into an account to fully prefund employee retirement health benefits, a requirement exceeding that of other government and private organizations [7]), revenue dropped sharply due to recession-influenced[8] declining mail volume,[9] prompting the postal service to look to other sources of revenue while cutting costs to reduce its budget deficit.[10] The USPS lost US$5.5 billion in fiscal 2014, and its revenue was US$67.8 billion.”

Wow! I can almost hear those telegraph operators of yesteryear crying the blues.  Not only have private shipping concerns such as UPS and FedEx continued to chip away at USPS market share, but other major players such as Amazon want in on the action. (Can you say same-day drone delivery?)  Being that neither timeliness nor cost-effectiveness has never been one of the Post Office’s priorities, as innovative companies continue to reel in more and more of the fish that USPS once had all to itself, at what point will the feds declare it time to abandon ship?

Courtesy of  en.wikipedia.org

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, in a blog on Fox News, stated that: “Amazon delivery drones are still years away, but someday they will be as common as seeing a mail truck. Bezos told the Telegraph in London that the biggest hurdle Prime Air has to clear isn’t related to technology, but regulators.”

Of course, with other bureaucrats such as the FAA, running interference for the Post Office, they might be able to delay the inevitable for a time.  And since the US Postal Service has never been one to innovate since Ben Franklin stepped down from office, far from looking for new sources of revenue, it will face an ever shrinking customer base.  Combined with bureaucratic bloat and an unwillingness to face the fiscal realities of running a business, the sheer cost of running a dysfunctional shipping conglomerate will inevitably spell disaster. (Or,https://www.blogger.com/null they can simply print an adhesive strip on the back of a $1 bill.)  As with other bygone technologies, the question is not whether the Post Office can survive change, but when will it be time to Fire the Postman?


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Carl Weiss has been working the web to win since 1995 and has helped hundreds of companies increase their online results. He is president of W Squared Media and co-host of the weekly radio show Working the Web to Win which airs Tuesdays at 4pm Eastern on BlogTalkRadio.com. Click here to get his latest book "Working The Web to Win: When it comes to online marketing, you can't win, if you don't know how to play the game!".

One Response to “Is It Time to Fire the Postman?

    avatar angela b says:

    I prefer USPS to UPS and FedEx based on my last decade of shipping orders out to customers. Pricing, timing, ease of free pickup by local carrier… works for me. Don’t have to deny orders that will be shipped to PO boxes. I also remembering some issue where UPS wouldn’t delivery on Saturday without being paid extra – maybe it’s different now, but, never an issue with USPS.

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