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'Like somebody turned off a switch': Small businesses say USPS delays are hitting them hard

Aimee Picchi, Special to USA TODAY
·4 min read

Joe Cortese says his company, NobleSpirit, relies on the U.S. Postal Service to ship thousands of packages containing stamps and collectibles each year. But starting in June, he and his wife, Polly, began noticing problems with shipments.

“When we have something that has value, we are mindful of the progress it is making,” he says from his company's base in rural Pittsfield, New Hampshire. “Packages that would take two, three, or four days were literally taking three weeks, even four weeks.”

Cortese, 69, adds, “It was like somebody turned off a switch.”

Customers have contacted his company to ask about the progress of a package, and in some cases, asked for refunds. Sales have softened since the delivery delays began this summer, which Cortese suspects are due to weakening customer confidence that they’ll receive packages on time. The culprit, he believes, is change put in place at the Postal Service by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who stepped in the role in June.

Those changes, including limiting late deliveries and cracking down on overtime pay that resulted in delays in service across the country, have drawn scrutiny from lawmakers and customers, with particular concerns about how they affect mail-in ballots and prescription medication deliveries. But businesses like NobleSpirit say they’re also feeling the impact. And the complaints from angry customers are raising anxieties ahead of the busy holiday season.

Joe Cortese, center, owner of NobleSpirit, a small business in New Hampshire, says his sales have softened because of post office delivery delays
Joe Cortese, center, owner of NobleSpirit, a small business in New Hampshire, says his sales have softened because of post office delivery delays

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“My biggest concern is customers will place orders at the beginning of December, and they will be told they won't get it until after Christmas, and all those orders will get refunded,” says Joseph Cobb, the owner of Cobb Co. Tech & Hobby in Charlestown, New Hampshire.

Cobb, 36, whose company sells miniatures, paints, Legos and other hobby products, says that customers don’t blame the Postal Service when a package is late. “A lot of people just associate the retailer as the source of the problem, and the customer notes a bad review about the seller — not the shipper,” he says.

On-time handling for first-class mail has declined since June, according to an August report from the Postal Service. A separate August report from Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, a Democrat, found that delayed mail items more than doubled at the Postal Service Michigan Metroplex, a major sorting facility, after DeJoy stepped into his role. Peters said his office heard from more than 700 businesses as part of his investigation.

In a Congressional hearing last month, DeJoy said he was working on fixing delays. He also suspended some operational changes after criticism from lawmakers and customers.

In a statement to USA TODAY, the USPS said it’s improving its delivery service and is optimistic those trends will continue.

“Our workforce, like many others, have been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, which has resulted in certain service disruptions,” said USPS spokesman David Partenheimer.

The postal agency is “increasing hiring based on local needs and improving process flows,” he added, noting that weekly data is showing “positive trends in performance improvement for mail service delivery.”

Yet slower delivery times aren’t new to the Postal Service, which has suffered from a long-term decline in the quality of its service – issues that predate DeJoy’s tenure, says Paul Steidler, senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank. First-class mail once took one to three days to deliver, but now the standard is two to three days, he notes.

At the heart of the problem is the Postal Service’s financial straits. In the most recent quarter, the post office said revenue rose by more than 3%, thanks to higher demand from e-commerce packages – but it lost $2.2 billion as spending jumped on benefits and retirement obligations, partly due to a 2006 law that requires the USPS to fund 75 years of retiree health care benefits.

At the same time, demand for first-class and marketing mail has declined. Given those dynamics, DeJoy’s focus on operational changes made sense, Steidler says. But DeJoy’s timing “could not have been worse” given the approaching election, he adds.

“The one thing that's not an option is for the Postal Service not to do anything new,” Steidler says. “Until it does things more efficiently and until Congress puts in holistic reform legislation, those chronic losses will continue.”

Business owners say their concerns aren’t political. Despite the USPS’s problems, the service is more affordable than rivals like UPS or FedEx, especially when it comes to global shipping.

For rural businesses like NobleSpirit, the USPS is a lifeline, says Polly Cortese.

“It’s a business issue,” says Cobb, the owner of the hobby company. “When a customer forces me to give a refund because their package has been stuck in a facility for 30 days, it definitely impacts the bottom line.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Small businesses: USPS delivery delays hit Main Street businesses hard