Can USPS Deliver Discounted Mail on Schedule During Holidays?

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This is not the time to be a postal employee -- especially one with loads of responsibility or large, yet seemingly rote, choices and decisions. As one of the stressed-out postal workers, you might think your ears are fooling you but those verbal darts from impatient customers keep on coming.


"Can't they hire some people who know what they're doing? What do you mean you held our mailing? When exactly did our mailing drop? How could you possibly be out of the new philanthropy stamp?" Those barbs pale in comparison to the private screams. "Why won't this cash drawer open? Why couldn't they have spent some of that money to simplify these forms? Why do I have to deal with all this bulk mail? Where did those stamps go?"


All would benefit from being quick to complement and slow to slander our postal counterparts, and we must appreciate the late 1990s efforts of the U.S. Postal Service. There are more hand-addressed holiday cards to decipher, more corporate mailings to sort, and more nonprofit organizations presenting bundles of mail bound for their constituencies.


As both individual recipients of our personal mail -- with our own supply of waste-basket-destined letters with urgent messages and annoying teasers -- and strategists and managers of the best medium for communication with our customers and target prospects, we need to appreciate the aggressive way in which the postal service has tried to get ahead of its hectic end-of-the-year and end-of-the-millennium demands.


Instead of handling an expected holiday workload of 5 billion cards and letters and 100 million packages with brute force as it has in the past, it has invested in automation and innovative postal information systems, with the hope of turning a significant R&D investment into the service it has always promised and frequently delivered.


Postmaster general William J. Henderson commented on the postal service's innovation saying, "technology is the key to this success. It has helped keep postage rates in line with inflation and given businesses and nonprofit organizations the ability to narrowly target their messages and advertisements."


Keeping in mind Henderson's comments, you may have already noticed the increase in mail from nonprofit organizations you have never supported. Nonprofit organizations of all types have tested their way into an earlier start for the important holiday season. Most organizations mail at least one of their major prospecting pieces before Oct. 31. This year, to increase support for The Bowery Mission, we mailed 54 percent of all our mail for our current year last month. The shift caused some serious problems for the postal service as many local branches put the finishing touches on their computer system conversion. This unfortunate synchronism resulted in disastrous mailings for nonprofits in recent months.


Two rescue missions, and most likely many other nonprofits, serviced by different mailing agencies out of different post offices saw a 14-day delay in delivery of their first holiday mailing. Typically, these Bulk-Rate mailings take seven to 10 days to arrive in homes. The unexpected 20-day delivery time resulted in letters arriving within days of each other, when the schedule planned for arrival at least a week apart. A few weeks after this occurred, the postal service announced "that it had achieved 15 consecutive quarters of service improvements for local First-Class mail delivery."


An under-reported anomaly of fall 1998 is the widespread, scarcely documented failure of the postal service's networked monstrosity in terms of Second- and Third-Class mail. Those all-important Express Mail contracts and offers and Priority Mail and First-Class documents may truly be arriving early, or at least on time, on a more consistent


basis.


Yet the disdain that local postmasters share for not-for-profit and discounted Bulk-Rate mail has failed to wane in the aftermath of their late-to-the-dance tech overhaul. What other reason could there be for the back rooms full of Third-Class mail? They proudly present their record-breaking delivery times for First-Class mail, complete with audited proof, while another important part of their service continues to languish.


As mailers, we can only hope the postal service gets around to performing First-Class diligence on our bulk mailings before our peak season is over. As mail recipients, we can expect a continuing deluge of catalogs, product offers and solicitations for charitable gifts, the latter peaking in early November and resurging again in early December.


The hundreds of millions of appeal letters sent out at this time of year provide the lifeblood for so many worthwhile causes.


<I>Rod Molloy is director of development at The Bowery Mission, New York.<I>
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