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Voices of MainStreet: Marc Levy

5 Terrible Ways to Save the Post Office

Sept. 16, 2011

BOSTON (MainStreet) -- The U.S. Postal Service is in trouble.

With more people sending email and texts instead of letters and cards, and more bills being paid electronically as well, there's been a 20% drop in the volume of mail between 2006's record (213 billion pieces of mail processed) and last year (177 billion, according to Dennis Tarmey, a service spokesman).

Expectations that delivery from online retailers such as Amazon would make up for the trend haven't been met, and Netflix didn't help things with its 60% price increase and subsequent loss of hundreds of thousands of subscribers this quarter, only 2% less among those who only stream video and a whopping 27% less of those getting discs delivered.

That's a lot fewer red envelopes being picked up and dropped off by mail carriers.

And those who think the whole economy suffers when there's "uncertainty" will find big cause for pessimism from the proposals that U.S. Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe is making to right his agency's money troubles:

Closing up to 3,700 postal locations before 2015 as well as 252 mail-processing centers -- that's about half of all mail-processing centers; laying off up to 120,000 workers; and ending overnight delivery time for most first-class mail (which includes letters, magazines and postcards). It's usually called "snail mail" for laughs, but these changes could very well contribute to a death spiral. The slower and less reliable the delivery, after all, the less anyone will want to use the service, which will lead to further cuts, and raising prices for whatever users remain is a nonstarter for the same reasons.

Meanwhile, it'll be harder to find a post office. Tarmey says there were 71,000 of them back in 1900, when the population was less than 100 million, compared with only 32,000 post offices now that we're a population of more than 300 million. Losing another 12% of those in the next three years isn't going to help.

So looking into the far future, less and slower mail delivery could result in a bricks-and-mortar retail renaissance, since no one wants to wait very long for their Zappos to arrive or pay UPS- or FedEx-level rates to get their shoes as fast as we can now, essentially for free.

And what people are charged for mail by for-profit deliverers such as UPS and FedEx is only going to soar with the disappearance of the Postal Service, a government-owned corporation.

Looking at standard overnight costs among those three services, "the Postal Service was the least expensive by far for local and long-distance deliveries," Consumer Reports found. In its test of overnight delivery from one side of the country to the other, for instance, the Postal Service asked $16.50 for the same results as what testers got for $62.87 from UPS and $54.57 from FedEx.

How is that possible? "We have an infrastructure in place and letter carriers everywhere," spokeswoman Yvonne Yoerger told Consumer Reports. "We're simply adding package delivery to a network that already exists."

Well, that won't be the case soon.

But, hey! Why be so serious? The collapse of our national infrastructure is still months away.

While we wait, why not look at some ways the Postal Service can save itself, and us, from all the cutbacks and bad news? Here are some sure-fire money-raising ideas that, if adopted, will keep the mail flowing and prevent a whole nation from going postal:

1. The porn stamp

Why not finally do for mail's most graphic component what porn has already done for every other visual medium in the history of humankind? Put explicit imagery on the stamps that propel our envelopes and maybe we can stimulate some sales as well -- probably more so than the usual assortment of flowers, pinecones, butterflies, historical personages and American flags.

Imagine instead buying a sheet of pornographic stamps that tells a tale (perhaps the tale of a delivered pizza and the coeds who have no money with which to pay for it) in classic sequence but infinite variety, with rising action, climax and denouement. Generous mailers might send a letter a day; cruel ones might send a letter a day and then stop short of the story being, um, resolved. And that might even prompt people to issue a surprising plea: "Please send more letters."

As a nation, we already spent $13.6 billion on porn last year, according to Business Pundit, with Utah being the top market for the stuff. Some 20,000 adult movies are produced just in California's San Fernando Valley, and there are more than 800 million rentals of adult videos nationwide. Ugly porn star Ron Jeremy alone has more than 1,200 films to his credit. Why shouldn't this stuff be on stamps as well?

Especially since the subject matter would make the stamps eminently collectible, meaning a growing market segment of philatelists would be paying just to take them off the market, then having to buy more to actually mail things. The possibilities are endless.

But can we, just for a moment, please think of the children? What if an untarnished mind stumbles across daddy's private stash of postage?

First, let's be clear: We're trying to bring in some money here. The prospect of junior high school kids sneaking into the post office to flash their fake ID and buy some stamps is less horrific than, well, hilarious.

But mail is already an adult concern in the dullest sense of the word. Our techy kids don't understand mail, and they don't want to. And most aren't home when the mail arrives. If your kid is home when the utilities bill and Restoration Hardware catalog shoots through that slot on the front door for the couple who lived there four years ago, what kind of parent are you, anyway?

2. The lottery stamp

Scratch and win, or lift up a flap to peek at the number underneath, and the country wins also. It doesn't matter whose lottery it is -- whether the country opts to allow a sponsored game from a private enterprise, use current state or regional lotteries or even create a national version such as those other countries have, except printed on stamps -- so long as the Postal Service gets a cut of the sales.

This raises the possibility of people sending mail to themselves in quantity for the first time in history -- "myself" being a widely untapped market when surveys ask people to whom they most frequently send mail. But surely most of these lottery stamps will be the favored postage when sending a greeting card to a loved one during a gift-giving time such as the holidays or for a birthday or graduation. (That raises the question of whether it will be "Love, grandma and grandpa," "By opening this card you are legally obligated to share with me half your winnings" or "Good luck! This is the only way you can pay off your college debt!" that is the most common sign-off once this plan goes into effect.)

Obviously, the lottery stamp raises the risk of getting your mail stolen by people who just want the winnings.

But there's a dual solution to that, and the great thing is that part of the solution results in even more revenue for our ailing mailing. First, the numbers on the stamp and the winnings that follow can be valid only if a stamp is marked canceled. Second, to ensure the intended recipient gets your cute card, good wishes and potential millions, you'll have to pony-express up a few more bucks for delivery confirmation and maybe even insurance for your letter or package. How much insurance? I don't know. Since insurance sales will skyrocket as the prize money rises, how much do you think that lottery stamp might be worth?

3. Your post office, your Keno destination

While we're at it, why not just take lottery sales away from the mini marts and give them to the post office? People are always joking about how mailing a package is like gambling; why not give them some real gambling while they're at it?

Lottery sales are up from Arizona (closing out fiscal 2011 with a record $583.5 million in sales, up 5.8% over the previous fiscal year) to North Carolina ($1.5 billion -- that's billion with a "b" -- this fiscal year, up 2.8%, giving state schools an additional $1 billion in revenue for new chalkboards and gambling-addiction counseling). In fact, USA Today says 28 of our 41 state lotteries are up, with 17 at record highs.

Get these compulsives into the post offices, take a cut of the sales and the Postal Service will surely see an uptick in sales of stamps, mailers, bubble wrap (because it's convenient) and rental of post office boxes (because gamblers need to keep their smokes and snacks somewhere).

4. The stamp that stars you

Forget Stamps.com. That for-profit site gives you customized stamps, sure, so long as they're not of "celebrities or celebrity likenesses, regional, national or international leaders or politicians, current or former world leaders, convicted criminals, newsworthy, notorious or infamous images and individuals, or any material that is vintage in appearance or depicts images from an older era or obscene, offensive, blasphemous, pornographic, sexually suggestive, deceptive, threatening, menacing, abusive, harmful, an invasion of privacy, supportive of unlawful action, defamatory, libelous, vulgar, violent or otherwise objectionable."

But you can order only up to 10,000 stamps at a time. And the chances are that some 14-year-old from Maplewood, N.J., isn't going to get her acne-ridden face on 10,000 first-class stamps unless she has very indulgent parents with a very large holiday card list. Any order of this size is going to be some boring corporate affair -- and 10,000 stamps even among the more than 300 million in the United States just isn't that big a deal.

But what if that 14-year-old clarinetist could be on every Forever stamp sold in a given month, or if Herman, the guy next door, was on every Forever stamp for even just a week? (Yes, a week of Forever.)

Given that kind of weird ego trip in this age of reality TV and YouTube stardom, you bet there would be a million budding Jwowws (or for a different generation, Angelynes) who would embark on campaigns to get people to vote them onto those little adhesive squares at, say, $1 per vote for government coffers. The Postal Service could even run a "hot or not"-style voting website that could either run advertising, charge for votes or both.

5. The stamp that stars stars

Speaking of Jwoww, Snooki and the rest of their reality television ilk, the most likely, but least fun, option the Postal Service could pursue to raise revenue would be to forget the rule that "no living person shall be honored by portrayal on U.S. postage" and ease its somewhat reserved sensibilities to let in a wider variety of pop culture icons.

Let a thousand flowers bloom, but let them not be flowers (or flags, or doggies). Let them be sheets of Jersey Shore stars for fans of that show; the cast of Community for fans of that show; and commemorative stamps for The Sopranos and a million more. Let there be Beavis, Butt-head, Daria, Milton and the old King of the Hill clan for fans of Mike Judge (the Simpsons made it on, after all) and all the ranters of Fox News and MSNBC and the humorists of Comedy Central for fans of punditry, invective, spin and outright lies. Those who wouldn't buy a Bill O'Reilly stamp might buy a Rachel Maddow, and those who wouldn't buy either might yet buy a Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.

The Postal Service can double-dip here, of course. Since this is essentially advertising, it can reap dollars from media giants who want to get their stars' faces out there however they can, and at the same time get consumers' paychecks 44 cents at a time.

Or 48 cents at a time, or 50. Or 60. Or 75.

Or whatever the Postal Service will be charging us for stamps if we don't offer it some other revenue streams.

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