Editorial Notebook: Failure Not an Option
The Washington Post published an editorial called "Too Big to Mail?" on June 22, and it caused many folks with various degrees of familiarity with the U.S. Postal Service to weigh in. After all, the numbers don't lie: The USPS could lose up to $12 billion by the end of the current fiscal year and is approaching a borrowing limit from its creditor, the Federal Financing Bank.
So "radical" solutions were proposed — some struck the right chord with readers, while some riled. You already know about the proposals regarding five-day delivery and temporarily cutting down on its pension program, which the Post claims are mere fingers plugging the holes in the boat. Because of today's internet-related realities like electronic bill pay, people paying their taxes online and the absence of letter writers, First Class mail volume has plummeted.
In other words, the big drop in mail volume has as much to do with electronic communication, for business and pleasure, as the current recession. The e-explanation also goes for lower direct mail volume, with many more companies whittling down their direct mail expenditures and putting more dollars into their e-marketing efforts. Our Who's Mailing What! Archive, the world's most complete library of direct mail, bears out the double-whammy impact. Compared to the first quarter of 2007, volume dropped by 5.6 percent in 2008 and then a whopping 17.6 percent this year.
To combat this drop-off, some urge the Postal Service to mimic Switzerland's Swiss Post, for example, which gives customers secure online mailboxes where they can view scanned images of their mail and choose whether to virtually "open" it, recycle it or have it physically mailed to them. They claim this service increases efficiency, boosts recycling efforts and lowers unwanted mail.
While criticism of the Postal Service's weak web efforts is warranted, switching to such a radically different system would involve a heated congressional battle and line up the direct marketing industry on the opposite side. Looking at mail on a computer screen versus holding it in your hands is the definition of a reduced marketing opportunity. For now, some private companies are offering such services to consumers, such as Earth Class Mail, which originally brought the idea to Swiss Post, and Zumbox, which also scans your mail but then puts it into your Zumbox email box.