Red Roses, Rancid Cheese and the USPS

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Mention the U.S. Postal Service among a group of direct marketers and you'll get a half-hour rant on the flaws and foibles of the system - grumbling about slow delivery, groaning about poor management, griping about rising postal rates. But does the USPS really deserve this venom?

Consider a bizarre but revealing study published in the "Annals of Improbable Research" (Vol. 6, Issue 4). Researchers - and I use the term loosely - wanted to test the delivery limits of the USPS. So they mailed a bunch of eccentric items to see what would happen. Here are a few of the items and the results:

$20 bill. Sealed in clear plastic to tempt the greedy. Delivered untouched in four days.

Pair of expensive tennis shoes. Unwrapped. Simply strapped together with duct tape. Delivered in seven days with laces neatly and tightly knotted.

Rose. No box. No wrapping. Just a rose with postage and address card tied to the stem. Beat up but delivered in three days with the rosebud intact.

Screaming toy. A monkey-in-the-box addressed in big letters to LITTLE JOHNNIE. Upon shaking, the toy shouted, "Let me out of here! Help! Let me out of here!" Delivered in six days.

Fresh green coconut. No wrapping. Just addressed, stamped and dropped in the mail from Hawaii. Delivered in 10 days.

Box of sand. Mailed in transparent plastic box. Opened, inspected, taped shut and delivered in seven days.

Brick. Wrapped in plain brown paper. Pulverized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, but all pieces delivered in a plastic bag in 16 days.

Large wheel of rancid cheese. Mailed in a cardboard box through which the cheese oozed and emitted a nasty odor. Box placed in plastic bag and delivered in eight days.

Of course, not all the mailed items were delivered. An unwrapped hammer never arrived. A bottle of unopened spring water dropped into a mailbox was consumed by a postal carrier as he worked his route. A can of soup, a lemon and a bald tire are a few other things that didn't make the journey.

My favorite undelivered item was a helium balloon. The address was written on the balloon with a marker. No postage was affixed. When mailing the balloon at a postal station, the researcher "argued strongly that he should be charged a negative postage and refunded the postal fees because the transport airplane would actually be lighter as a result of [the] postal item." With a smile, the postal worker refused to accept it.

Of 28 items, 18 were delivered. That's 64 percent. Considering the odd nature of most of the items, these numbers are astonishing. Compare this with a zero percent delivery rate cited by the study for countries such as Peru, Turkey and Egypt, and you can't help but conclude that we've got it pretty good in the United States.

When designing the New York General Post Office at Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street, William Mitchell Kendall, an architect with the firm McKim, Mead & White, supplied an inspirational inscription that is familiar to every American: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

It's not an official motto. But it may as well be. Because despite all our grumbling, groaning and griping, the postal service remains one of the most personal and reliable means of delivering things from one place to another at a reasonable cost.

"Personal" is the key word here. According to the most recent statistics, the USPS employs 797,795 people. They pick up your mail, transport it and deliver it to any address you choose, all in a few days for a few cents each. Every piece of mail is handled by a human being at some point. And this personal touch makes all the difference.

It's why mail remains such an effective medium. It's why no new technology can ever fully replace it. It's why red roses and rancid cheese can get delivered even when they break all the rules. So, I have two tips for you: One, the next time you hear people carping, remind them that the men and women of the USPS are our partners and amazingly cooperative partners at that. They deserve our respect, our support and our thanks. Two, please don't mail cheese. That's just nasty.

Read the full report on these "postal experiments," with pictures of some of the mailed items, at

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