The Media Mail Inquisition, Post Office Fired, and Other Musings on Mail

I went to the Post Office today. They’ve been on my “list” for a while now but recently have incurred more wrath as a result of their new policy requiring that credit cards be signed in order to be used. I understand this is a policy of the credit card company, but all other businesses I patronize accept my unsigned credit card which says “see ID” on the back. Mind you, all these other businesses that check my card and my ID are actually making a profit.

The USPS’s profit from January through March 2011 was negative 13.58%. *

If this recent policy wasn’t the culmination of a long list of offenses, then I would have just signed the back of my credit card without any ado.

But it was the clichéd straw that broke my back.

It started with our purchase of a PO Box when we first moved to the area. After selling our old home, we spent a month living out of boxes in a hotel room while we waited to close on our new house. During this time, we needed somewhere reliable to forward our mail. After we changed all our bills and magazine and correspondence to our new PO Box number, we received a phone call that the PO Box we had been assigned was “no longer available.” After we had been using it for weeks!

We were assured, of course, that any correspondence addressed to it would be forwarded to a new PO Box for us—free of charge! How good of them!

Despite this promise, mail went missing, including a ten-dollar birthday check mailed by my old-school uncle who, upon learning his check was lost in the mail, insisted upon closing his checking account that had been open since before I was even born.

It only gets better.

I frequently sell my used textbooks on half.com; half.com’s shipping policy is to ship books via media mail. According to the USPS website, “The material sent must be educational media. It can’t contain advertising, video games, computer drives, or digital drives of any kind. Media Mail can be examined by postal staff to determine if the right price has been paid. If the package is wrapped in a way that makes it impossible to examine, it will be charged the First-Class rate.”

One day I was shipping a Norton anthology. This book is shaped like a brick. There is no box I know of that can easily fit a Norton anthology. I made my own by reinforcing a bubble-envelope with packaging tape.

When I arrived at the counter after a pleasant wait in line and told the clerk I wanted to ship the book via media mail, her eyes flashed. The Inquisition had begun.

“It has to be a book,” she said.

“It is.”

“No, only a book. Nothing else.”

“It is only a book.”

She raised an eyebrow. “How many books?”

“Just one.”

“And what else?”

“Nothing. Just a book.”

“And what else?” Her eyes narrowed.

I couldn’t help but smile. “And bubble wrap,” I said.

“And what else?”

“Cardboard,” I said.

“And what else?”

“Packing tape.”

The conversation went on.

“It’s not shaped like a book,” she said.

“It’s a book.” I lifted the package and dropped it down on the counter to show its rugged bookishness.

“Can you open it for me to see that it’s a book?”

“No.”

“I need to see it’s a book.”

“It’s a book,” I said. “I’m not going to rip apart my packing. Why would I waste my time like this to save two dollars? It’s a book!”

“I’ve never seen a book that big.” She eyed her manager.

“I’m an English major,” I said.

She was not impressed. “You need to open it.”

I eyed the package. It was taped up to survive the apocalypse. “It’s. A. Book.”

The manager looked over. I narrowed my eyes at him.

He looked at her and nodded.

She pursed her lips in defeat. “Does it contain anything liquid–”

But I didn’t let her finish. “It’s just a book,” I said.

The thing is, this same clerk had been harassing me about media mail for months. The first time, when I told her I was shipping a book, she insisted, “Actually, you can only use media mail for books that are educational.”

“I’m in luck,” I said.

“It’s for education?” she asked skeptically.

“Not only is it for education, but it’s about education. It’s a book made for students who are going to school to become teachers. That’s like education squared! If that doesn’t qualify for media mail, I don’t know what does–”

But she had already moved on.

It was after months of being subjected to such distrust—as if I have nothing better to do than to scam the USPS out of pennies at a time by shipping non-eductional materials via media mail—that they started their Credit Card Inquisition.

Now every time I go to the post office, I bring a pocket full of change. There is only one clerk who has not yet subjected me to the Inquisition over media mail. She trusts that I have better things to do with my time than get my jollies off by sending non-educational materials over media mail. For her and her alone, I do not pay in change.

And what exactly is the USPS trying to hang onto here?

When I try to track packages on the USPS website, the whole process reminds me of drawings that kindergarteners make. You know the ones—they hand it to you with that innocent little smile, hoping you’ll be proud of what they’ve done. You kind of hold it and tilt it around as you try to make out what it is. “That’s a nice….elephant,” you say, hoping it will suffice. Then the kid’s eyes fill with tears as they tell you “you’re holding upside down. It’s a picture of you!”

Case in point: compare this tracking information from UPS with that of the USPS:

Here’s UPS:

I love how I can practically track the entire package. There’s no way it could be lost!

Compare that with this tracking information from the United States Post Office:

Shipment accepted? Shipment accepted? What does that even mean? That the clerk behind the counter finally accepted the fact that it is a book and nothing else? That the Inquisition for this shipment has ended?

And I love the expected delivery date: August 29. That’s today. It’s almost bedtime, and I have not received my package.

But something happened this summer that almost made up for my dealings with the dreaded Post Office.

Almost.

Packaged in with the most recent copy of Bloomberg Businessweek was a notice essentially firing the post office. “Starting next week,” the notice informed, “your magazine will be delivered like a newspaper,” meaning subscribers will receive their magazines “before [the] weekend begins.” I love how they equate “outstanding service” with no longer delivering via USPS.

Interestingly enough, this follows closely a Businessweek featuring an article about why the Post Office is in big trouble. A few highlights of the article include the fact that the USPS is essentially relying on junk mail to increase revenue, the Internet is destroying first-class mail, and UPS and FedEx—not the Post Office—are America’s go-to companies for express shipping. Also—no surprise there—unions and insane benefits promised to retirees are adding their demands to kill the system.

To try to remedy the problem, analysts were sent to different countries, all of which are making a profit with their postal systems (compared to the USPS, the profit margin of which was some negative-13% this year). Ideas include closing down many USPS branches and reopening in convenience and other stores (allowing for hiring non-union employees and increasing efficiency by linking to the private sector). These are all ideas implemented by other countries with success. The analyst who found all these ideas “returned to America full of excitement” and “delivered… a report to the House subcommittee.” When briefed on this research and offered the suggestions, “Joseph Corbett, the American postal service’s chief financial officer, thanked [the analyst] for his efforts. At the same time, he said the agency was sticking to its plan.”  *

Nothing like the status quo.

Good ole US P O

 

* = Info and quotes from Leonard, Devin. The End of Mail. pp 60-65 in Bloomberg Business Week‘s May 30-June 5, 2011 issue

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