Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Junking of the Postal Service

As junk mail multiplies and the United States Postal Service struggles for financial survival, experts are increasingly asking the question, do Americans need Saturday mail delivery ... or daily mail delivery ... or a state-run postal service at all?...

The primary beneficiary of the United States Postal Service today is arguably the advertisers whose leaflets and catalogs flood our mailboxes. First-class mail — items like bills and letters that require a 44-cent stamp — fell 6.6 percent in 2010 alone, continuing a five-year-long plunge. Last year was the first time that fewer than 50 percent of bills in the United States were paid by mail. There were 9.3 billion pounds of “standard mail” — the low-cost postage category available to mass advertisers — but only 3.7 billion of first-class mail.

In fact, to compensate for projected declines in “real” mail, the Postal Service has been aggressively promoting the use of new services for advertisers like Every Door Direct, which allows local retailers to place unaddressed promotional material in every mailbox in an area for pennies a piece, with a few clicks of a mouse.

.... Chuck Teller [is] founder of Catalog Choice, an online service in Berkeley, Calif., that helps people get their names off catalog mailing lists; this requires submitting the customer numbers on unwanted catalogs that arrive in the mailbox, one by one.... Direct-mail advertising generates an estimated 10 billion pounds of waste each year, costing cities an estimated $1 billion to dispose of it, according to Catalog Choice.

... Dozens of United States localities have hired Catalog Choice to create Internet platforms to allow residents to opt out of mailings. Even at $22,000 for the first year of service, King County, Wash., which includes Seattle, has calculated that it will be a good investment for all the garbage collection it will obviate, said Tom Watson, a project manager in the solid waste division of the county....

... In Canada this summer ... a monthlong hiatus in much of Canada’s mail delivery over a labor dispute provoked few complaints. When Canadian postal workers struck in 1990 there was great pressure on government to make concessions. This year, opinion columns ran under headlines like “Who Cares?”...

... Canada’s post office long ago ended Saturday delivery and house-by-house delivery in some newer neighborhoods. (Mail is left in banks of boxes at subdivision entrances.)
THE post office is a large employer, especially of minority workers, and laying off hundreds of thousands of employees in this economy would be extremely difficult. Even postal skeptics note that it still delivers essential communication to small subgroups that are not (yet) well connected online: the elderly and rural residents. And how else would we get subscription magazines? Ralph Nader has argued that the service should be maintained because it is a crucial delivery network for items like medicine in the case of national emergencies. For now, the overwhelming majority of Americans who pay bills online still prefer to receive paper statements.

But to cover its costs, the post office needs to keep mail volume high. And even some high-end direct mailers worry that the contents of American mailboxes are coming to resemble a paper infomercial....

Some experts favor a general “do not mail” option for people who do not want to receive any direct mail — although advertisers vehemently oppose that approach, maintaining that glossy unsolicited catalogs remain beloved by shoppers, and the postal system would most likely collapse if there were a sudden drop in its business. The Postal Service claims that 81 percent of American households surveyed in 2010 reported that they either read or scanned advertising mail.

... Perhaps catalogs should be delivered by private companies, ending the centuries-old law that the only a government employee can place things in your mailbox....

It is striking that even though many European countries have privatized postal services — shedding thousands of buildings and millions of jobs — the actual delivery of mail looks much as it does here. Deutsche Post, the German postal carrier, which converted from a state company to a private one over a decade ago, is still required to provide coverage six days a week. (And it still delivers and encourages direct mail.)
by Elisabeth Rosenthal
The New York Times www.NYTimes.com
December 3, 2011


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