Postal Service Going Way Of Pay Phones And Broadcast Tv

Commentary

August 05, 2009|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,jay.hancock@baltsun.com

We're taking care of General Motors. The blob known as Citigroup will soon be slimmer and less dangerous. Another 20th-century business must now check in to 21st-century fat camp.

The U.S. mail is losing billions. It's at "high risk" of failing financially, say government auditors. It may raise stamp prices again even though it just did. It's talking about closing post offices, including five in metro Baltimore.

You've heard before about Postal Service budget crises. This is the big one. To deal with a plunge in mail volume that began in 2007, the U.S. Postal Service is about to become a very different part of the economy and a different part of our lives from the one we have known.

It still does what it has always done very well. A letter retrieved from your house and delivered to any of millions of addresses, thousands of miles away, by humans, for the cost of a few pieces of gum, is a screaming deal.

But nostalgia products won't support an outfit with 700,000 employees, 38,000 offices and a $75 billion budget. The Post Office is very well organized for a world where the Saturday Evening Post arrives each week and lonely doo-wop singers serenade the mailman.

But personal letters haven't been the main media of love or anything else for decades. For a long time, utility and credit-card bills, and their reciprocal monthly payments, kept the Postal Service afloat. But now people do business online.

Today's Postal Service, more than anything else, is partner in annoyance with the junk mailers. Most mail is unsolicited advertising. Nobody sings songs about that.

The recession has hurt all advertising but slammed "direct mail," as the snail-mail spammers call themselves. All told, deliverers are expected to carry 18 percent fewer pieces of mail this year than they did in 2007.

Volume usually goes down 5 percent or less in a recession. Much of this business isn't coming back, the Postal Service acknowledges. With losses of $7 billion projected for both this fiscal year and the next, Postal Service bosses know they have to act - and not just by cutting employee overtime. Now they show signs of doing so.

"In essence, we are delivering less mail to more addresses, which means we receive less revenue per address served," says Freda Sauter, a Baltimore-based spokeswoman for the Postal Service. "It's not business as usual any more."

The Postal Service has already closed several district offices, eliminated jobs and cut other costs. Now it has published a list of about 700 post offices to be reviewed for possible closure - of which perhaps 300 might eventually close, Sauter says.

Five are in metro Baltimore: Eastpoint Mall and Towson Town Center in Baltimore County; and Franklin Station, Fells Point Station and Mount Washington Station in Baltimore.

Naturally, patrons are unhappy, even though the final decisions are months or years away.

"It's probably going to inconvenience a lot of people," said Ida Jones, who was mailing a letter at the little Mount Washington office and lives nearby.

The Awareness Center, an international nonprofit dedicated to reducing violence in Jewish communities, has had a box at the Mount Washington office for years, said CEO Vicki Polin, who works from her nearby home.

"It would cost us a lot of money if it moves, because everything is listed at this address," she said. "They know me here. They see my face and they know my box number. I feel like it's a small town."

Don't be optimistic that the Postal Service will move fast or take the right steps. It's the government. Its five-year plan, titled "Vision 2013," is packed with the cliches corporations use when they want people to mistake talk for action. "Leverage Our Strengths." "Embrace Change." "Collaborate to Grow the Business."

General Motors talked the same way. It got embraced by change, not vice versa. And it wasn't cuddly. Telephones and e-mail stole the Post Office's traditional business. E-commerce took away the bills. Online ads are eroding what remains.

Growing the business is not part of the picture.

Three hundred closed post offices will probably be only the beginning. Saturday delivery, which should have been stopped years ago, is on borrowed time. States are passing "Do Not Mail" legislation, the optional blocking of junk mail similar to "Do Not Call" restrictions on phone calls. That will bring more hurt.

The Postal Service will always be here, guaranteeing delivery to the remotest parts and slipping thank-you notes and Christmas cards in the right mailboxes. But hand-delivered letters will become an increasingly marginal utility, similar to pay telephones, 411 directory service or broadcast television - there if you really need it, but not the medium of choice. Or even second choice.

Neither snow nor rain nor other nasty things can keep postal carriers from their rounds. The Internet and the laws of economics, on the other hand, have a pretty good shot.

REACTIONS TO POSSIBLE CLOSINGS

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