The Exchange

What Could Make the Postal Service Cool Again

The Exchange
Ashraf Gouda delivers mail for the United States Postal Service on a snowy afternoon with the leaves on the trees still turning autumn colors in Sea Cliff, N.Y. on Saturday, October 29, 2011. A classic nor'easter is causing snow up the East Coast, unseasonal for this time of year. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)
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If you saw a postal truck pulling away from your house on a Sunday morning, what would be your first thought?

a. The postal carrier was late delivering Friday’s mail.

b. Somebody got the calendar mixed up and thought it was Monday.

c. The mailman had been on a Saturday-night bender and was just now heading home.

d. Somebody stole the mail truck and was joyriding.

One thing that probably wouldn’t occur to you is that the mailman was actually delivering mail. But it may be time to start thinking differently about the postal service.

I got a ring on my doorbell this past Sunday around 10 am, and looked outside to see who it might be. A postal truck was pulling away. At first I thought I was the one who got the day wrong, which meant … I was late for work!

But there was a small package in the mailbox, just delivered: a pair of gloves I had ordered from Amazon (AMZN) less than 24 hours earlier. Ah-ha! This was the new Sunday delivery I had heard about. I hadn’t asked for Sunday delivery or paid extra for it, but it turns out Sunday delivery is included for Amazon Prime members like me, who pay $79 per year for expedited shipping and a few other perks. Amazon has just rolled out the service in the New York and Los Angeles metro areas and will bring it to several other cities next year, including Phoenix, New Orleans, Houston and Dallas.

Customer service: Not dead yet

Here’s my initial reaction: Wow. Cool. Many Americans have gotten used to the idea that customer service is dead. If you want something special, you almost always have to pay extra for it, and even then, odds are roughly even you’ll get stuck on the phone for 45 minutes pleading for your privileges with some anonymous voice from Manila or Bangalore. Amazon, by contrast, is one retailer that strives to fulfill the old Steve Jobs mantra about “surprising and delighting” consumers, which, as a longtime Amazon customer, I’ve noticed before.

The U.S. Postal Service, however, hasn’t delighted me in a long time. It did once – when I was 10 years old or so, and the local mailman seemed to have an endless supply of rubber bands he happily shared with the boys on my street. It’s an understatement, however, to say the postal service has lost its mojo since then. As for surprises, I guess I’m surprised the mail usually shows up on time, but the truth is, I don’t even want to be surprised by the postal service.

That’s what I thought, anyway, until I found myself feeling — I’ll admit it — surprised and delighted that the postal service could deliver something, at no extra charge, on the traditional day of rest. Amazon is responsible for most of this magic, no doubt, thanks to its mastery of logistics and its seamless network of distribution centers. But the postal service is apparently an able partner. It already delivers on Sundays on a limited basis, under contract, while FedEx (FDX) and UPS (UPS) don’t. The USPS has also been aggressively looking for ways to innovate, since its legacy business — the physical delivery of letters and printed ephemera — is in sharp decline, on account of the digital revolution.

The postal service is an easy target for lampoonery, largely because of the 1950s vibe you get whenever you set foot in an actual post office, and the occasional flubs that are inevitable when you deliver mail to every address in America. The reality, however, is that the postal service is a weird hybrid agency that’s supposed to act like a regular corporation, except that Congress retains the authority to micromanage and manipulate it and keep it locked in the past. As I and many others have argued, the real problem with the USPS is its 535-person board of directors.

The postal service lost $5 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, a disastrous financial performance that would trigger alarm in any ordinary company but generates only shrugs on Capitol Hill. There’s one bright spot, however — package delivery, which rose by 8% to $923 million in revenue during the most recent year. The Sunday delivery deal with Amazon (the exact terms are private) won’t generate enough revenue to offset the need for deep reforms elsewhere. But it’s clearly a step in the right direction, with same-day delivery possibly coming next. Worth noting: Those are the types of innovations typical of private enterprises, not government agencies. Competitors may have to change their own practices to respond.

It’s also a win for consumers, who don’t usually feel the U.S. Postal Service is on their side. That may change as the mailman becomes the face of instant gratification and we feel excitement, rather than disappointment, when we hear the phrase, “It’s in the mail.”

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success . Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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