Some good news for the U.S. Postal Service for a change …

psThe U.S. Postal Service has just implemented a price adjustment on first class letter mail – the first rate increase in quite a few years. Some other pricing adjustments have been implemented as well, but on the whole they are modest.

Hopefully the rate increases won’t throw water on the good news that the USPS experienced over the holiday season. According to a Rasmussen Reports consumer survey of ~1,000 American adults age 18 and over conducted at the end of December, Americans used the USPS more in the most recent holiday than in the 2015 season.

The public also continues to give the USPS higher marks than its major competitors – FedEx and UPS – on the way it handles their packages.

For the record, ~21% of the respondents surveyed by Rasmussen reported that they used the U.S. Postal Service more this holiday season than they have in previous years, while ~18% reported they used it less. The remaining ~61% kept their USPS usage at around the same level of activity.

On the commercial side, for many businesses who do not have the kind of high volume shipping needs to qualify for special pricing from FedEx or UPS, the USPS also appears to be a far more lucrative choice from a price-to-value relationship.

usIn mid-2015, FitSmallBusiness.com undertook apple-to-apples comparisons of the three big package delivery firms, and found some startling differences.  For example, to ship a 3-lb. package overnight-delivery from New York City to Los Angeles, using FedEx would set the sender back $83.  UPS was even worse, at $84.

The USPS price?  Just $24.99.

Comparing short-haul rates as well as heavier 10-lb. packages found similar major discrepancies — all in favor of using the U.S. Postal Service. On top of that, the USPS provides free packaging materials, complimentary pick-up service, free insurance and tracking — not to mention flat-rate boxes for packages that weigh up to 70 lbs.

feSealing the deal further, while FedEx’s 50,000+ and UPS’s 63,000+ locations worldwide are certainly nice to rely on, the number of USPS locations dwarfs those figures by a country mile. Those myriad USPS locations also mean that packages can be shipped to P.O. boxes in addition to physical addresses – something that’s out of the reach of either FedEx or UPS.

People love to beat up on the United States Postal Service.  But say what you will about the USPS, its problems and its financial challenges, they’re still a major-league bargain for many consumers and businesses.

In the U.S. Postal Service’s own words: “Letters are going away.”

Actually, the pronouncement isn’t really all that earth-shattering.

USPS Mail DeliveryBut the fact that “letters are going away” has been stated by a spokesperson for the United States Postal Service speaks volumes.

The comment came after a not-for-profit interest group calling itself the “Taxpayers Protection Alliance” released a video that admonishes the USPS to “stick to delivering our letters.”

In the cartoon video, a girl is mailing a holiday card to her grandmother while complaining that it’s getting harder and harder to send First Class mail.

TPA videoReferring to the package delivery and grocery delivery services that the USPS now offers, the cartoon character pleads for the USPS “stop cutting mail services in favor of these other costly things and stick to what we really need them to do:  deliver our letters.”

The Postal Service’s response can be summed up in two words:  “Dream on.”

In fact, here’s what a USPS spokesperson stated to Target Marketing magazine about single-piece First Class mail, which includes personal correspondence and bill payments:

“[It] historically has funded the organization, since we do not receive tax dollars.  Package volume is growing exponentially … The mail mix is changing and the Postal Service welcomes that change.”

Indeed, First Class mail volume — and particularly single-piece First Class mail — has been declining rapidly, as can be seen in the USPS’s annual volume figures shown below:

First Class Mail Volume Trends
First Class Mail Volume Trends: 2005 – 2014. (Source: U.S. Postal Service)

By comparison, package delivery has grown by nearly 20% over the past five years.

Target Marketing and others have done a bit of digging to learn more about the “Taxpayers Protection Alliance” … and they’ve discovered that the group is particularly perturbed about the USPS getting into the grocery products delivery business.

“Expanding services into the private market is not only wrong because it undercuts private competitors,” the TPA organization’s president David Williams complains, “but because it is coming at the expense of its government-granted monopoly – mail delivery.”

TPA logoAll of which makes it intriguing to speculate who is actually behind the “Taxpayers Protection Alliance” and what particular agenda they may have.  Hint:  private companies that offer grocery delivery services, perhaps?

But the bigger news is this:  The USPS is no longer even pretending to claim that First Class mail is a central part of its business model looking to the future.  And that’s a huge change from only a couple of years ago.

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: Why don’t we just throw another couple billion around?

Last week, the United States Postal Service reported its latest quarterly financials — a $2.4 billion loss. Compare that result against the same quarter last year (pre-stock market dive), when the USPS lost only a mere $1.1 billion …

But what the heck? Why doesn’t the government throw a few more billions of dollars around? That’s probably in the cards, because Postmaster General Jack Potter has let it be known that the USPS may be on track for losing as much as $7 billion for the year … and that’s even if the USPS follows through on its plans to shutter ~3,200 post office locations (nearly 10% of the total).

Of course, one of the reasons for the sorry financials is a decline of USPS operating revenue on the order of around 9%. The most recent postal rate hike couldn’t make up for the ~14% decrease in mail volume, which dipped not just because of the recession but also because of changing communications practices, online bill-paying and the never-ending growth of e-mail.

Still, those volume declines are not as steep or as challenging as many private-industry companies have faced in their industries. Could it be that the USPS, as a government entity with all of the bureaucracy and HR/personnel strictures that entails, simply cannot be as nimble and flexible as firms in private industry? And what does this portend for us in the realm of government-managed healthcare?

Maybe the words of singer-songwriter Bobby McFerrin are applicable here: “Don’t worry. Be happy.”

Besides, what’s the alternative — clinical depression?