The End Of Week 1: How Would You Change The Postal Service?

February 8, 2015 in Journal

The first week of Month of Letters is now over and we have a day of rest! Unless you, like me, plan to at least write a letter today even if you can’t send it until tomorrow. I’m busy getting through all of my postcards, which meant a trip to the post office yesterday for more odd denominations of stamps.

U.S. Post Office - Wicomico, VA by Carmen Shields

Not the post office I went to! This photo is by Carmen Shields. U.S. Post Office – Wicomico, VA from Flickr

This recent postal experience was quite pleasant. But not too long ago on a Saturday I went to my local post office to buy some stamps and mail some letters. I took one step in, saw the long line, and walked right the heck back out.

This is a pretty typical interaction between me and that post office. It’s constantly understaffed, the lines are often long, and now it has very inconvenient hours (which is why everyone crowds in there on a Saturday). I know there many reasons for this, and most of them are not the fault of the people working at my local branch. Still, it’s frustrating.

In some ways the US Postal Service is remarkable and awesome. Even efficient. It’s the other stuff I find maddening. And in all the talk about how to fix the USPS or trim it down or make it profitable or whatever the latest drama is, I rarely see any practical, useful ideas offered up to eliminate postal pain points.

For instance, I’m a big fan of being able to purchase postage online. I do it often when sending a package, and it’s a simple process via the USPS website and even gets me a small discount. Why, then, can’t I buy a stamp just as easily? I can buy sheets of stamps, of course, and get them delivered. But buying a single stamp for a letter requires going to Stamps.com, which is not owned by the USPS, and signing up for a monthly service. That solution is great for businesses, but not for someone who sends letters occasionally.

As I said, it’s seemingly small pain points like this that get to me. Why, in an age where this kind of thing should be convenient and simple, are things complex?

Last year I caught an episode of the Freakonomics podcast where the hosts talked about some other ways the USPS might improve based on ideas from listeners. One thing Stephen Levitt points out is that big, lumbering organizations like the post office are harder to change than nimble startups. Seems to me the USPS could benefit from at least some start-up mental juice. The last time any of that kind of mindset got near them the Postmaster General shut it down with extreme prejudice and for no good reason. More recently I’ve seen reports that the USPS is considering the addition of banking services in order to make some money. It could work, if done right.

If something dramatic happened and you were suddenly asked to offer some out-of-the-box ideas for how to make the USPS better, what would they be? What the the pain points you’d like to see alleviated? Are there things postal services in other countries do that we should be doing?

7 responses to The End Of Week 1: How Would You Change The Postal Service?

  1. Going to the post office is such a crap shoot for me. I never know whether to expect a line, or efficient service. The last 3 or 4 times I’ve had to buy stamps there, I ended up using the machine. The last thing the post office needs to do is add something like banking services, at least before it figures out modern customer interactions. Their point-of-sale is incredibly inefficient. They offer too many options to their customers, which draws out a simple transaction. Why not standardize all shipping so that all packages get logged and tracked the same way? The cost of having clerks go over all the 15 different ways of sending a package, plus the deterrence when customers have to stand in lines, must be more than the gains of a few “value added” shipping perks. USPS could offer a “one size fits all” mailing solution that would beat out private shippers like UPS (have you ever tried to pick something up from one of their distribution centers?), like the Apple Store of shipping.

  2. The post office nearest my house has a self-service kiosk out in the lobby (away from the slow lines) where you can mail packages AND buy single or booklets of stamps using a credit card. The other post office nearby has a vending maching with a variety of denominations of stamps from just a few individual stamps to booklets. Very handy. But my favorite ways to buy stamps are either from the post office website or, for ‘vintage’ stamps, I go to Errol Murphy (elmurphy@cox.net), he takes checks or cash and is very quick to send your order.

  3. You can buy stamps online from the Post Office itself. You don’t have to go to stamps.com, though it seems to come up first when you search. Here’s a link to the USPS’s own online sales:
    https://store.usps.com/store/browse/category.jsp?categoryId=buy-stamps

    The selection is good, much better than at the post office, and they come very quickly. There is a small fee for shipping, which seems a little silly.

    Most of the post offices near me no longer have vending machines in the lobby for stamps, and I really miss them.

  4. Personally, I’ll go out of my way for a self service kiosk. I stock up on stamps when I go, so I usually don’t need to go for that. I love that I can send packages from it, too. I just wish there was a way to ship internationally with it – last time I mailed a package overseas, it took me a half an hour as they gave me the wrong forms, took forever to type them in, etc.

    I would ship more things overseas if it were quicker!

  5. I’ve now stopped at three urban post offices trying to mail out 140 Christmas cards. Here are my pain points:

    1) On Saturday afternoon just before closing time, unsurprisingly there was a 20-minute line. The USPS website said I could stop by Wells Fargo to buy postage. A mystified bank teller went to his manager, who instructed me to go to the ATM. There, I found that the surcharge is 10 cents a stamp: over 20% fee. Fine, my card recipients can wait until next week.

    2) On Monday morning I went to the 2nd-closest post office; I asked a staffer where I could get stamps, and she motioned to a machine but said it might be faster (since I needed 140) to wait in the line. The machine had no line so I tried my purchase: it asked me how many stamps I wanted, offering to sell me 1 to 51 (?). I bought 50, and it offered me a second transaction, offering to sell me 1 to 1 (?). Navigating confusing menus, I figure out there’s a daily limit of $25 per credit card per day: I guess to deter money-laundering terrorists or Bernie Madoff from stockpiling Forever stamps traceable back to their charge cards. So with a second credit card, I manage to send out 100 cards.

    3) At post office #3, there’s a medium-sized line but this one also has one of those side counters that sell merchandise-only, with only 1 person ahead of me, behind some lady making a complicated transaction (involving a photocopy of her ID) and the world’s slowest clerk. Wrapping up, the lady asks if she needed the paper this clerk was about to submit for processing: he says no, but on a whim, he offers to get her a photocopy. You guessed it: the USPS has the world’s slowest photocopiers. After 3 more minutes, I gave up and decided to try later at a 4th post office some other time.

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