WASHINGTON. — RESEARCH CONDUCTED for the U.S. Postal Service confirms something that required no research, namely, that mail delivery can be pretty sluggish.
The joy of science, however, is that it attaches numbers to things. And in this case, the researchers found that when they mailed 425,000 envelopes and packages to 5,000 destinations throughout the U.S., an average of only 81 percent fulfilled the promise of overnight delivery. For second-day delivery -- the scheduled time is linked to distance -- the success average was 74 percent. Given the billions of first-class letters entrusted to the postal service, that adds up to a colossal volume of late mail.
Some cities fared far better than others, with overnight delivery rates of at least 90 percent in Columbus (Ohio), Fort Worth, Kansas City (Missouri) and Pittsburgh. But many cities did worse, among them New York, with 47 percent arriving overnight; south suburban Chicago, 51 percent; Memphis and Los Angeles, 71 percent; Chicago 73 percent, and Baltimore, 76 percent.
Several major cities were very close to the 81 percent national average, including Cleveland, San Francisco, San Diego, and Miami -- all within a point or two of that figure.
The mailing test, conducted over a three-month period by a consulting firm, Price Waterhouse, evoked evidence of a higher order of public-relations finesse by the postal service management than has been evident in the past.
Postmaster General Anthony Frank rated the delivery performance a ''low B,'' thus diminishing the target for the postal service's hostile reviewers and kibitzers, of which there are many in each category. The postmaster's response contrasted with the methods of his predecessors, who earnestly lectured the critics about the heavier volume of mail and the relatively low price of U.S. first-class postage compared with that of Europe and Japan.
The postal service, as usual, is in the midst of grandiose plans and programs for automating the handling of its ever-increasing volumes of mail. By the turn of the century, according to the current design, the whole load is supposed to be sorted with bar codes and optical-reading devices, thus speeding delivery while raising the productivity of the work force, which is the costliest item in the budget.
A high-tech solution is the only feasible way to keep the mails moving while minimizing politically damaging increases in postage. But there are good reasons to wonder whether the postal service can accomplish its goals. With 660,000 full-time employees and a budget of $45 billion, it is among the biggest industries in the world, but its research spending is minuscule -- dTC a mere $90 million this year.
The percentage of revenues spent on research varies according to industry, with electronics and aerospace ranking high and building and construction ranking low. But none of them is quite as low as the post office in allocating money for research, which, after all, is the quest for better ways to do the job.
And it shows. The postal service is mired in antiquity in confronting the basic problem of moving paper from here to there. The colonial postmaster, Ben Franklin, would feel at home in today's neighborhood post station. Sure, when it comes to vast volumes of junk mail, the old system more or less chugs on, moving great tonnages for which it faces only marginal competition. But where important materials are involved, the public is increasingly turning to modern technologies and delivery systems in which the post office is out of the game or running a poor race.
It is only recently that coin-operated fax machines have been installed in post offices -- and relatively few, so far. The postal service has no presence in the booming business of electronic transfer of money. UPS dominates package delivery. And it was Federal Express, exploiting widespread dissatisfaction with the mails, that pioneered the overnight-delivery industry.
It is a healthful sign that the postmaster general has collected precise data on the delivery performance of his organization. The information could be useful for improving delivery service. But while hoping and waiting for that, it's reassuring to know that fax machines are handy and private delivery services are extremely reliable and eager for our business.