Titanic deck chairs – USPS edition: The Postal Service is getting into the clothing business.

New USPS apparel line "Rain Heat & Snow"The U.S. Postal Service, hemorrhaging red ink all over the place, has finally decided to jettison Saturday mail delivery.

This decision was taken after years of (very public) hand-wringing and amidst dire predictions of public outrage if the trigger was actually pulled on eliminating Saturday delivery.

Yet, once the decision was finally announced, public response was … near silence. It was a total shrug.

[Politicians, take note: This may also turn out to be the public’s reaction to the sequester cuts kicking in — breathless predictions to the contrary aside.]

Of course, we all know the USPS hasn’t been able to catch a break in recent times. As mail volumes continue to slump, the postal service finds itself attempting to spread its fixed and operating costs over a steadily smaller share of mail volume.

According to the USPS’s own figures, there’s been a ~33% decline in catalogs mailed in just the past four years.  First class mailed hasn’t fared much better, decreasing by one-fourth over the past decade.

At worst, the situation is a recipe for complete failure … at best, the USPS will just continue to lurch from one mini-crisis to another. 

So what to do with such dire prospects staring you in the face?

Why not start a clothing line!

That is correct: The USPS has announced plans to launch a new line of apparel and accessory items. It is partnering with Cleveland-based apparel company Wahconah Group to launch the product line, which will be sold under the brand moniker Rain Heat & Snow.

Forget trying to figure out mail delivery practices that will work in the 21st Century. According to the USPS’s corporate licensing manager, Steven Mills, “This agreement will put the Postal Service on the cutting edge of functional fashion!”

By “cutting edge,” Mills is apparently referring to the fact that the new clothing line will incorporate wearable electronics technology to make the items “smart.”

Isaac Crawford, CEO of Wahconah, reports that “the products will build on the rich American history of this iconic brand, creating specialized apparel for consumers, at affordable prices, delivering something new and exciting that retailers can offer their customers.”

Is anyone jumping up and down with excitement yet?

Tellingly, none of the Rain Heat & Snow apparel will be available at post office locations — only at department stores and apparel shops.

I guess it would be rather strange to encounter mannequins and display racks amongst the shipping containers, change-of-address forms and passport applications at your local post office branch.

As much as many people would like this new venture to be a success, I can’t visualize this endeavor causing anything more than a minor blip on an otherwise steady downward trajectory for the postal service.

So, is it back to the drawing board?

Proposed USPS legislation is no panacea.

With all of the horrid financial news coming out of the United States Postal Service in recent months and years, we’ve been waiting to see what sort of congressional legislation would be proposed to alleviate its problems.

The wait is now over, with the announcement of a legislative proposal called the Postal Operations Sustainment & Transformation Act of 2010. (P.O.S.T. – get it?)

This legislation attempts to fix the USPS’s precarious financial condition with a bevy of provisions such as easing employee pension and retiree health costs, making it easier for the USPS to close redundant or underperforming branch offices and, most dramatically, eliminating Saturday mail delivery altogether.

It’s no wonder the proposed legislation seeks to cut back on operating costs, because the volume of mail the USPS processes has dropped by ~20% just since 2006. And the prediction is for a further decline of ~20 billion pieces of mail that will be handled in the coming decade.

Sen. Thomas Carper, who introduced the bill, had this to say about the proposed legislation: “… If we act quickly, we can turn things around by passing this necessary bill that would give the Postal Service the room it needs to manage itself …”

That sounds nice and tidy. But does it really solve the USPS’s financial and structural problems?

If enacted, the new provisions in this legislation are expected to save the Postal Service somewhere north of $3 billion per year. But only a couple days following news of the legislative bill comes word that the USPS lost $1.6 billion in the month of August alone.

In fact, for the first 11 months of its fiscal year, the Postal Service’s losses have totaled nearly $8 billion. USPS losses are significantly higher than last year at this time (~$6.3 billion by comparison) – and that’s even while experiencing an increase in mail volume of ~1.8% year over year.

In this context, it seems pretty evident that the pending legislation will not come close to remedying the USPS’s financial situation – even as it enables the most sweeping cuts in operating activities that have ever been seen. Unfortunately, a classic case of “too little, too late.”

The Postal Service’s own Office of Inspector General has released a report claiming that the USPS could be financially sustainable at the lower mail volume levels projected … if it could raise prices above the inflation rate. But such an action could tip the whole enterprise into a “death spiral” where the price hikes drive away customers. A reminder to everyone involved: Mailing service is no longer a monopoly in this country.

This problem is by no means solved.

USPS: Yes, it’s in the news again.

It seems the U.S. Postal Service is never out of the news – and the news is almost always depressing or infuriating.

And last week, the USPS made the headlines not once but three times. The first item was a financial report – numbingly repetitive by now – that the agency lost nearly $1.6 billion in the last quarter.

Like a bad movie that never seems to end, the USPS is on track to lose as much or more money in FY 2010 than it dropped in 2009. Meanwhile, the Postal Service continues to seek ways to reduce expenses by cutting back on the services it provides. Look for Saturday mail delivery to be a thing of the past by 2013.

Then, later in the week came news that Robert Bernstock, the USPS’s former president of mailing and shipping services, was found to have improperly used his position to conduct outside business, including helping award six non-competitive contracts to several of his former business pals. The Office of Inspector General, which investigated his activities from July 2009 onward, also concluded that Bernstock “used his subordinate staff to conduct work that supported his outside business activities.”

Bernstock resigned his position on June 4.

Hard on the heels of the Bernstock revelations came the nice little news nuggett that the USPS has been overcharged in excess of $50 billion for payments to the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) – payments that were made over a 37-year period from 1972 to 2009. The Office of Personnel Management, which is responsible for calculating the CSRS pension liability, is now reconsidering its calculation of the USPS’s pension assets in light of the report.

While it’s nice to see that the CSRS error is being remedied, it’s pretty amazing that something so inaccurate as this could have gone undetected for the better part of 40 years!

And what’s the USPS doing for an encore this week? It’s filed for an exigent postal rate increases ranging from 5% on first class mail to a whopping 23% on parcels. Isn’t that wonderful: reward inefficiency by getting a price increase.

This quartet of USPS news items over the past week embodies everything that concerns those who are looking at the prospects of increased government involvement in health care with dread: operational inefficiency … financial mismanagement … corruption and backroom dealing at the highest levels.

It’s also a cautionary tale for those who blithely believe that if we could only move this or that business activity away from the “money-grubbing private sector” and give it to a government entity instead … all of our problems would be solved.

Uh-huh.

USPS: The Losses Keep Piling Up

The latest financial results for the U.S. Postal Service are in, and they’re a continuation of the same old story line: Tons of red ink and fingers pointing in every direction.

The USPS posted a net loss of $3.9 billion for FY 2009, “only” $1.1 billion worse than the previous year. And that’s even after receiving a $4 billion deferment on paying an annual $5.4 million obligation to pre-fund healthcare premiums for its retirees.

Not surprisingly, total postal revenues were down about 10% to ~$68 billion, not only because of the economic downturn but also because of the continuing shift to digital communications. Total physical mail volume declined ~13% to around 177 billion pieces.

Given the sorry financial stats, one would assume that the USPS would be moving forward in all haste with its plans to shutter as many as 10% of its post offices and branches around the country.

But if you thought that … you would be wrong. What started out as a potential closure listing of ~3,200 stations (the impressively named Station & Branch Optimization Initiative) quickly became ~700 stations and branches that were actually slated to close. Then that figure was trimmed to just over 400. And now we have word that the closure figure is down to ~370.

Given more time, the number of closures may well slip even further … and at some point the whole exercise becomes completely meaningless as cost-cutting endeavor.

And then there are the persistent rumors that mail delivery will be cut back to five days from six. But that never seems to be anything more than just an idle threat.

Welcome to the wonderful world of government agencies: Stultifying bureaucratic procedures that are near-Byzantine in their complexity, coupled with reacting to every conceivable interest group while being too timid to make any hard choices at all when it comes to managing their operations like any business in private industry must do.

Anyone for government-managed healthcare?