My relationship with the US Postal Service starts during happier times...
I got a post office box in the Prudential Center in Boston when the Post Office re-opened a new facility there. I was excited. I worked in the Prudential Center complex and the post office box made it very convenient for me to pickup and drop-off my mail.
I loved going to the Post Office - and not just to get my mail. When I needed stamps, I could go to a vending machine and get a book of stamps in two shakes. My complaint about the setup was that the machines gave dollar coins as change and didn't accept credit cards. Minor, but still. And I couldn't just get books of stamps; I could even buy individual stamps from these machines. This post office had a special counter to buy materials for packages and sometimes send a package.
There were so many locations for the Boston Post Office. You could find one downtown, in Back Bay, the master one at South Station. And they were near important places - or a few blocks away. You never had to walk too far to find a post office.
The best part about the Boston Post Office was how you could send a bill payment or letter to a Boston company and it was delivered the next day. I tested the consistency of next day delivery frequently. There were many nights where I would dash to the South Station Post Office just before midnight to make a next day delivery for a bill payment. It was better than email or paying electronically! I was always suspicious of online payments. It was early - 1997, 1998 - and the security just wasn't there from my perspective. Further, when the banks did online payments many were using the mail too. There weren't many companies that had a direct payment. (I believe today the companies that don't accept a direct payment from a bank are the exception not the rule.)
Then I moved to San Francisco. I realized the wonder of the USPS was regional.
I had a post office box in this copy center in Cupertino. Or was it Milpitas? Anyway, I was in between places in San Jose. When I finally made it to San Francisco in my new apartment, I didn't yet send a change of address card to the US Postal Service because my mail was already being forwarded to Milpitas. I figured I'd let some mail trickle to San Jose for the time being and change my mailing address for all my bills directly to my new address in San Francisco. That way I would know if I changed everything I wanted.
I thought that was a brilliant plan.
But it wasn't. According to the mail carrier for my block, because he didn't get a card, he didn't think anyone was living in my apartment and returned all mail addressed to me. Yes, you read that correctly. He continued delivering junk mail and mail addressed to people who no longer lived there (like a bunch of different random names) but decided that the mail sent to this new name, Mary Brodie, me, shouldn't go to that address. What I found bizarre about this nonsense was that if you notice that mail is coming addressed to this new name, like a lot of different pieces of mail, wouldn't you start to wonder if someone new lived there?
Anyway - the guy was disciplined and life moved on and I got my mail. Finally. Or so I thought.
Mail took over a week to get across the country from Boston or New York to San Francisco. In a time when mail was competing with the Internet, I didn't understand this at all. So I decided to pay all of my bills online so payment would make it in time. At that time, direct payments were more common. I started noticing that in addition to this week delivery timeline, it was difficult to get to any post office anyway. They were at inconvenient locations, not on main streets. Or in malls that weren't in the middle of action.
My relationship with the USPS was waning.
Packages were difficult to get. I had to go to a Post Office nowhere near my house. I believe there was one nearby, but to the US Postal Service, that wasn't in the area servicing me. I did get packages stolen because the carrier left a package at my doorstep when I wasn't home. Yeah. Nice.
Then one day when I was at a Post Office picking up a package, I noticed that the post offices no longer had vending machines selling stamps in them. Sure, the vending machines may have been difficult to repair, but they were convenient. This new complicated device replaced them. It would "help" you figure out how much postage was required to send a larger letter, package or whatnot. It was for smaller items. The device asked a lot of questions.
They went from simple vending machines to having this very complex self-help package weigh machine to put the right postage on boxes. It didn't make much sense to me. Then I noticed that to keep pace with FedEx and UPS, they started offering other services, but the services to send package were simply too complicated.
It became complicated and overwhelming to go to the Post Office. It became so manual in a time of automated transactions.
The lines got longer. They stopped selling stamps separately. Everyone had to be in a single line to do anything - drop off a package, pick up a package, get stamps. They combined simple tasks with complicated transactions.
The USPS downgraded it's experience from automated and easy to manual and cumbersome. Sadly, it was its own doing.
The main competitor of the Post Office had been the Internet. The Boston area held back this competitor because it essentially offered the same services as the Internet, mainly next day delivery. They had convenient locations. Easy to access stamps. They made doing business with the Post Office easy and convenient. Not many other cities did.
By making everything difficult about the experience - the time to send a package or letter, the way to get stamps, the packing skills needed to ship anything - the USPS discouraged people from using their services. Other options like UPS and FedEx became easier to work with.
Location is still a factor. Location matters.
I remember when I moved to Dallas, there was a fantastic Post Office facility near my apartment. It was right off of one of the main highways. It had lots of parking, a huge lobby, lots of people working there. They had some vending machines and it was super easy to get stamps and the like. But then it closed down.
On Monday, I waited in line for 30 minutes to send one envelope and two packages. I don't go to the post office because of the lines. Usually, I make purchases and send gifts online. However, as I was waiting in line, I saw most people ahead of me buying stamps. There were no machines available for people to buy them. And there were only 3 poor souls attending the counter. When I went to send my package, the attendant asked if what I had was fragile or contained perfumes. I guess that indicated special pricing? They offered countless ways to ship. They told me that I should have wrapped the jewelry pins I sent in additional bubble wrap even though it was a bubble wrapped envelope. It was difficult. And it wasn't the attendant's fault. It was the Post Office. They have made the experience complicated.
Compare this with a trip to UPS. I can walk into UPS with a bag of stuff I want to ship. Recently, I shipped my belly dance teacher in San Francisco a bunch of old costumes I don't wear for her students to use. At UPS, the staff takes your stuff, weighs it, asks you when you want the recipient to get it and done. You get to go home. They don't ask you 400 questions. They don't offer you 400 shipping options. The site does, but the store makes it simple. That's what the US Post Service needs to do. Make shipping simple again.
The good news is that since the US Postal Service partnered with FedEx and ups, they are delivering packages faster. Items aren't getting lost. It's a better service.
Hey, USPS, the world has changed! Here are some ways to change with it and become relevant again.
Sadly, the US Postal Service hasn't realized that the world of shipping and communication changed. They didn't keep pace and in the process, made themselves an irrelevant entity. I think they could become more relevant than a partner for FedEx and UPS if they focused on what people need in this new world.
- Support special occasion mail - holiday cards, wedding invitations, other special invitations. Although the art of letter writing has taken a nosedive, many still like to send cards and invitations and will use the mail for special occasions. Make stamps special to place on such envelopes. Make them easy to buy for different sized and weighted mail pieces. Maybe even sell them in grocery stores or Target. Or revive vending machines.
This could revive the art of letter writing if stamps are easier to purchase. They could make mail stylish again. I know that many are starting to send mail for marketing purposes because it gets attention. No one gets mail in the mailbox anymore. Using the US Postal Service makes you stand out.
- Packages. It's hard to compete with FedEx and UPS. UPS has the packing service figured out and well managed. I'd suggest maybe not replicating that. However, maybe the USPS could provide advice on the site for how to pack different shaped and styled items. Or better yet, offer different easy to pack methods. More bags. More fun shaped boxes. More spacer items. Get creative. Make it so people don't know how to be the perfect packer. Maybe all people would need to know how to pack is how to match shapes and colors with bags, foam and other gadgets.
- Track letters - and not make it more expensive than sending a letter using a stamp. This could be possible today, so why not just do it? It's a little bit of an added step, but to be able to track a letter from start to finish would be such a powerful service. It would compete with FedEx - and could be cheaper. With the improved package service, an improved standard delivery would be fantastic.
- Automate where you can. Sure, automation causes people to lose their jobs, but making people wait in line for 30 minutes to buy a stamp is unacceptable. People don't like to wait in line anymore. Find a way to make the easy tasks easier. It seems the UP Postal Service went backwards with removing those devices.
If the US Postal Service did these things, they may make themselves relevant again. I know I would send more cards and letters if it were easy to do that. I'm sure others would too.
USPS needs a new focus: Make it easy to use mail again. It seems that they lost their way somewhere during the rise of the Internet.