Sunday, August 23, 2009

No Saturday Mail Delivery? But I want my Netflix!

Last week I linked to an article about the US Postal Service wanting to cancel Saturday Deliveries, in order to save money. CNN has done a follow up piece on that article today, which includes poll results about canceling Saturday mail deliveries:

Commentary: About that Saturday mail ...
[...] More than 397,000 of you took the time to vote. The question was: "Would you miss Saturday mail if the Postal Service stopped delivering it?"

Here's the surprising thing (at least it's surprising to me):

Sixty-eight percent of you said you would not miss the Saturday mail if it stopped coming. Only 32 percent of you said you would miss it.

The votes were undoubtedly tallied correctly.

But if theory becomes fact, and if one Saturday America goes to its mailboxes and finds them empty, I don't believe the permanent loss will be met with an understanding shrug.

It goes against human nature. When people are asked to pay more for services -- in this case, by shelling out more and more, decade after decade, for postage stamps -- they generally don't accept it with a smile when what they get for their money is cut back.

So to think that the Postal Service will blithely make an announcement to the American people -- "We've been delivering your mail to you six days a week since the post office began, but from now on you won't be seeing us on Saturdays" -- and that the American people will respond with a friendly wave -- "We understand; you just enjoy your weekends, and we'll see you on Mondays" -- defies logic.

In a digital age, the U.S. mail is a throwback to a time when the only way to receive information was to have human beings -- paperboys, mail carriers -- bring it to you by hand. You're reading these words on a screen; chances are, whatever written communication you have with friends and family members in the next 24 hours will be via e-mail and text message, not by dropping an envelope into a mailbox.

The problems the Postal Service faces are real, and they're enormous. Postmaster General Potter says that getting rid of Saturday delivery would save more than $3 billion a year. My guess is that not only are they going to have to do away with Saturday mail -- the time is probably coming when delivery on other days of the week will disappear, too.

So the question is not whether the days of mail delivery will be curtailed. It's whether we will be happy about it.

Many people on various message boards said that the days of expecting anything delightful in the mail are long gone. Bills, catalogs, promotional fliers -- that's what the mail carrier usually brings, so who needs to deal with that on Saturdays?

An intriguing sidelight:

The one piece of mail that people referred to excitedly was the red envelope from Netflix -- the distinctive-looking envelope bearing DVDs of rented movies. The Netflix envelopes seem to have taken the emotional place of handwritten letters from grandma. If there does turn out to be an angry public backlash against the coming elimination of Saturday mail, Netflix may emerge as a key factor.

If enough people don't receive their Netflix envelopes on that first Saturday the mail doesn't arrive, and there is thus a hole in their Saturday nights -- well, President Obama might have to step in to cool the outrage, the same way President Dwight D. Eisenhower did in April of 1957, the only other time a permanent cessation of Saturday mail delivery was attempted. It lasted just one weekend. Americans wouldn't put up with it. [...]

Yes, the Netflix factor. I thought of that too when I read the article last week, because we get Netflix, and we would really miss Saturday deliveries because of that. But how many other Netflix users are there, and how irate would they become? Irate enough to make the government keep spending 3 billion a year to make sure we get our Saturday Netflix?

Of course, if the Post Office could be run like a REAL business, that operates to make a profit, instead of having billions of dollars in losses every year, perhaps they wouldn't have to cut services even as they keep raising prices.

The need for mail is changing, but it's still needed. People will pay to have a need fulfilled. Surely there must be a way for the Postal Service to change with the times to fulfill those needs? Or be replaced by something more efficient, more open to change, that can do the job?

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