Post office wait just got shorter

Self-service: Automated postal centers let patrons weigh mail, buy postage and send it without lining up at a counter.

September 02, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

In a rush and late for work, Holly Tominack dashed into the main Baltimore post office yesterday, juggling four packages and her motorcycle helmet and proceeded to do the previously unthinkable: transact postal business quickly during the lunch hour.

Tominack skipped the line of customers at the counter and headed instead for the "automated postal center" - an ATM-like contraption that lets customers weigh packages and purchase postage without the aid of a clerk. In just a few minutes, Tominack had whipped through the machine's touch screen to return a mail-order jacket and to send birthday gifts to her twin sister in Missouri and two sisters-in-law in Louisiana.

"I use this a lot," she said. "It's convenient, it's easy to use ... and you don't have to stand in line."

Like self-service lanes at supermarkets, digital photo-editing kiosks and take-your-own blood pressure machines, the automated postal centers, or APCs, are yet another area where technology is allowing consumers to do it themselves.

"I think customers are becoming more confident or more secure in doing all types of transactions" with self-service devices, said Robert J. Novak Jr., spokesman for the capital metropolitan area of the U.S. Postal Service.

The machines are in about 1,200 postal branches around the country, from Rhode Island to California. They began being tested in Orlando, Fla.; New York and Washington as early as five years ago. But they just began appearing in the Baltimore area this spring. The Cumberland post office today becomes the 28th Maryland branch to get one.

The self-service machines are part of a larger overhaul of the way the centuries-old U.S. Postal Service does business. The mail service has had to adjust to a communications world vastly changed by e-mail, Internet bill-paying and online shopping. About 2,500 of the APC machines are expected to be in every postal district by year's end. Richmond and Norfolk, Va., are to get theirs next week.

"It's just one step in many that we're using to do exactly what the government has asked us to do," said Kathleen Adams, customer relations coordinator for the Baltimore postmaster, to "become a business like we're supposed to be."

Some postal business still won't be able to avoid the counter. The APC kiosks only accept credit and debit cards for payment, can't yet issue insurance, register mail, provide passports or take packages destined outside the United States.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a decrease in postal workers during the next decade as technology usurps some jobs. A presidential commission on postal operations last year contemplated a future when no one would "ever have to set foot in a post office again." The commission recommended increasing partnerships with retailers, such as grocery stores and banks, that could take over some postal services.

"The Postal Service will always be a part of America," said Jacob Cheeks, acting U.S. Postal Service Baltimore district manager, though he acknowledged that buyout packages have been offered to some postal workers to "utilize resources in the most efficient way."

Cheeks said he is proud of the human efforts in Baltimore, pointing to a 96 percent quality rating for regional overnight delivery this spring, the highest rating in a decade.

And for some customers, machines can't replace the human touch.

"Some people we really have to coerce to come over and try it out," Kim Airey, a window clerk at the post office at Harundale Mall in Glen Burnie, which added an APC two weeks ago. "Some people just don't want to change. They want that personal service at the counter."

Automated centers

As of today, Automated Postal Centers are in 28 Baltimore-area post offices:

Baltimore:

Main office: 900 E. Fayette St.

Calvert Finance: 111 N. Calvert St.

Loch Raven: 808 Gleneagles Court

Mount Washington: 5730 Cottonworth Ave.

Nottingham: 4990 Mercantile Road

Parkville: 8201 Harford Road

Pikesville: 1325 Bedford Ave.

Rosedale: 7000 Golden Ring Road

Annapolis:

Eastport: 821 Chesapeake Ave.

Legion Avenue: 210 Legion Ave.

Others:

Bel Air: 202 Blum Court

Columbia: 6801 Oak Hall Lane

Cumberland: 215 Park St.

Cockeysville: 115 Wight Ave.

Crofton: 1296 Cronson Blvd.

Easton: 116 E. Dover St.

Elkton: 137 W. Main St.

Ellicott City: 3375 Ellicott Center Drive

Frederick: 201 E. Patrick St.

Glen Burnie Finance/Harundale Mall: 7728 Ritchie Highway

Hagerstown: 44 W. Franklin St.

Lutherville/Timonium: 9603 Deereco Road

Owings Mills: 10821 Red Run Blvd.

Pasadena: 4301 Mountain Road

Reisterstown: 5 Glyndon Drive

Salisbury: 816 E. Salisbury Parkway

Stevensville: 366 Thompson Creek Mall

Westminster: 345 Woodward Road

Source: U.S. Postal Service

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