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.
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?