Mailers Temper Critical USPS Report

Mailers in the direct marketing community expressed mixed feelings about a report this month that is highly critical of the U.S. Postal Service.

The report accuses the USPS of “unacceptable” customer service deficiencies such as long lines at post offices.

It is especially harsh on Priority Mail, which costs at least $3.50 and promises delivery in two or three days, saying that delivery times have steadily eroded. The declines were most dramatic in the three-day service areas, falling from 76 percent on time in fiscal year 1999 to 67 percent in fiscal year 2001. The report also said that Priority Mail moves more slowly than the much-cheaper First-Class Mail.

Essentially, the USPS “is misleading the public about the quality of service it is likely to receive upon purchase of Priority Mail,” said the report, issued by Shelly S. Dreifuss, acting director of the Office of the Consumer Advocate. The OCA is charged with representing the interests of the general public in postage-rate proceedings.

Recommendations include softening the advertising pitch for Priority Mail so customers do not have unrealistic expectations about its delivery speed.

Direct marketers agreed there are problems with Priority Mail but said the performance is not as bad as the report indicates.

“The [OCA] is correct in their criticisms. Priority Mail service has deteriorated over time, especially since Sept. 11,” said Johnathan E. Wittnebel, executive director, Association of Priority Mail Users, McLean, VA, and a postal consultant. “However, service could have been much worse [after Sept. 11] if the USPS didn't have the option to divert packages back to FedEx.”

After Sept. 11, the USPS negotiated an agreement with FedEx to handle Priority Mail after the postal service's use of commercial airlines was restricted.

“Survey data from our shipping department shows that Priority Mail moves faster than First Class, so we are not really seeing here what is in the report,” said Ernie Brogdon, mail services coordinator, Intuit Inc., San Diego, a financial software vendor that uses Priority Mail occasionally to deliver software packages and manuals to customers.

However, Brogdon said the report draws attention to Priority Mail in general.

“Maybe [the report] would have some positive effect on Priority Mail rates,” he said. “Or, maybe it would change Priority Mail to a two-day guaranteed service, which it actually was eight years ago. I think this would the best thing that could happen to Priority Mail.”

Dreifuss said that the report was not written to influence the Postal Rate Commission on a rate case settlement. The PRC was expected to release its decision March 22, and it then moves to the Board of Governors. If approved, the settlement would raise postal rates an average of 8.7 percent beginning June 30.

Dan Foucheaux, chief counsel for the USPS and rate case settlement coordinator, said it is too soon for the USPS to comment on the contents of the 111-page report.

“It's a long report, and there's a lot in there, and we want to take our time and look at it,” he said.

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