Special Report

You Can’t Lick ‘Em

The U.S. Postal Service keeps finding new ways to run out of competence -- and charge more for its lack of service.

By 7.8.02

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Last Monday, postage rates went up -- again. In the third rate-hike since 1999, stamps for first-class letters went up nearly 9 percent, from 34 to 37 cents, and the rates for postcards, priority mail, and packages rose as well. Just why do we need another increase now? The U.S. Postal Service's central command said it was due to increases in the ordinary costs of doing business, not in response to terrorism or the anthrax mail attacks that remain unsolved (the rate hike was already in the works last September 10, they said). For some reason, not everyone at the USPS stuck to that story. "Postal officials" told the New York Times that the rate hike was needed to recoup "hundreds of millions of dollars in expenses incurred after the September terrorist attacks and the discovery of anthrax in the mail."

This response to press inquiries about the rate hike isn't the only thing in the mail system that could use some centralization. Take inventory management. At noon last Monday there were long lines at one downtown post office in Richmond, Virginia, and when patrons finally reached the counter, they were told the branch's supply of 3-cent stamps already had been exhausted. Frustrated customers who just wasted half of their lunch hour in line were directed to the main post office (not within walking distance), or offered rolls of inconvenient one-cent stamps instead. And when would the post office be fully stocked? "Hopefully" by Tuesday, a clerk said. But why couldn't the main branch just send over whatever supplies were needed? Well, that was "complicated," according to the clerk, whose attempts at Southern friendliness were negated by her use of bureaucratic phraseology. You see, each branch has its own stand-alone supply systems, and there was no manager on duty that day to circumvent the normal procedures. In short, an employee at Post Office A couldn't just go and borrow supplies from Post Office B; that would be a violation of protocols.

It's unlikely that the latest rate-hike will pay for the improved service that's sorely needed at the majority of post offices around the country. If a private company failed to correctly estimate demand and ran out of its new product on launch-day, heads would roll, but that won't happen at the USPS because it's not run anything like a business. Customers are free to abandon their local grocery store or restaurant in response to poor service and long lines, but when it comes to the USPS, the "customers" have little choice.

The problem with this Soviet-style system became apparent recently when I moved and my mail for some reason was sent into a black hole instead of being forwarded to my new address. The new post office blamed it on the old, and vice versa. Fortunately the branches in question were less than 5 miles apart, because I had to drive back and forth between them -- in addition to calling during a few limited and inconvenient hours -- to try to get the problem straightened out so I could receive my bills. The whole thing has been quite an ordeal because the branches don't share a computer system. One post office has no idea what any other is doing, even if they're located only a few miles apart within the same city.

Contrast this with the conglomerate bank that has me as its customer. When I wanted to change the address on my account after moving, I could take care of it over the phone or at any branch. During the middle of the day I visited a bank that's not even in my home city, and was able to go directly to the counter -- without waiting in line. The polite employee pulled up my account information within seconds on his computer using my driver's license and account number. He quickly entered the new information, and was able to tell me the date my next statement would be mailed to the new address. The whole process took under 5 minutes, including time spent on questions about ordering new checks and changing account options. All in all, a fine consumer experience.

I don't believe I've ever had a fine customer experience at the USPS; the best I can say is that some trips have been less bad than others. And now I have to pay 3 cents more for the privilege. That is, 3 cents more until 2004 -- when the USPS says it may increase rates yet again.

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About the Author

Tracy Robinson is a 2004 graduate of the George Mason University School of Law.