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June 22 2014 07:19 PM

    I was reading the whitepaper published by the USPS Office of Inspector General, "What America Wants and Needs from the Postal Service." While I thought some of the conclusions were a bit slanted to match preferred results (reduction of delivery days and cluster mail boxes), there were some interesting facts that came about from the focus group study and interviews upon which the paper was based.

    American Taxpayers Think They Pay for the Postal Service
    Based upon earlier surveys, the USPS had established that over two-thirds of Americans believe the Postal Service is funded with tax dollars. When focus groups were informed about the actual funding facts, they still believed the organization should be responsible for delivering mail to all Americans, but according to the authors of the whitepaper, recognized " citizens had less authority to make demands on levels of service and were more sympathetic to the Postal Services' struggles."

    Whether or not you agree with this interpretation of the focus group responses is less important than the fact that so many people are basing their opinions about mail delivery on false assumptions about who pays for it. More education needs to be done. Mail service providers should not presume all their customers are adequately informed. Mailing professionals could probably do a better job of getting the word out about how the postal system works and what is behind the rate increases. This goes for both in-house operations and outsource service providers.

    Urban and Rural Priorities Split
    The second point that hit me about the OIG focus group study was a distinct separation between rural mail customers and those who lived in urban or suburban areas. Rural customers looked upon their post offices as more of a community anchor than their city-dwelling counterparts. Perhaps this is because there is likely to be only a single post office serving a large rural area, where there might be several units within reasonable driving distance from urban residences and businesses.

    Rural focus group members were also generally more concerned with security of the mail, both outgoing and incoming. This difference was revealed in questions concerning depositing mail at non-Post Office locations such as grocery stores where mail might be handled by store employees instead of official USPS clerks. From a delivery perspective rural participants reportedly favored cluster boxes as a security improvement over standalone mail boxes, though response statistics were not included in the whitepaper.

    When asked about the impact on their lives if the Postal Service ceased to exist, almost all the focus group participants said they would be impacted. Older Americans and those living in rural communities believed the impact would be greater than young urban residents.
    What does this rural/urban split mean to mailers? In some cases, decisions about paperless conversion strategies could be affected. Rather than treating all customers alike, the best approach might be dual strategies. Rural recipients of paper mail might be more inclined to switch to electronic delivery if their local stand-alone post office were slated for closure. A personalized campaign that took USPS facility consolidation plans into account could be an effective means to increase paperless adoption rates for these customers. In contrast, rural residents unaffected with post office consolidation have strong connections with the status quo. This may be a segment better left in the paper delivery channel. Of course, availability of internet connections and an analysis of the devices in use in different rural areas would play into this strategy as well.

    Consumers Not Ready for New Ideas
    New concepts such as electronic notification of mail delivery, offering government services at post offices, digital mail boxes, or hybrid mail elicited mixed reactions and skepticism from the focus groups. As one might expect, average citizens who don't work in the mailing industry are unfamiliar with many of these ideas. Interestingly, consumers who did understand details about new services often expressed the opinion that they wouldn't use them, but projected the services might be valuable to others. The authors of the whitepaper recommended additional research before embarking upon any of these initiatives - pretty good advice!
    The focus groups were not especially creative in coming up with their own ideas about how to change the Postal Service. Copy machines, parcel wrapping stations, and computers hooked to the Internet were mentioned, but suggestions were widely varied. One idea that did have wide appeal was expansion or modification of Post Office hours of operation. Nobody likes waiting in line or having to rearrange their work day to make it to the Post Office before closing. Other than this issue, the consumers surveyed seemed satisfied with their current USPS and saw no great need to make changes.

    A Good Start
    Although the administrators of the focus groups seemed to do a good job at recruiting a diverse set of individuals from different geographies, community sizes, and other demographic attributes, they still only interviewed 101 people. This may be enough of a representation for narrowing down or refining possible future strategies. However, it doesn't seem like a large enough number to consider the results a widespread consumer mandate.

    This conversation with a cross section of average consumers is an interesting contrast to all the anguish mailing professionals sometimes feel in their dealings with the Postal Service. The consumers just want a basic system that works and isn't too inconvenient. They don't seem to think about the mail too much, which probably means the current system is working OK for them.

    If commercial mailers and the United States Postal Service can find ways to mutually support the American postal system at a reasonable cost then perhaps drastic changes won't be necessary. A period of certainty and stability would be a welcome change.

    Mike Porter is an expert in Print and Mail operations and President of Print/Mail Consultants, an independent consulting firm that helps companies nationwide lower costs and integrate new technologies in their document production workflows. For more of his thoughts and ideas visit and sign up for Practical Stuff - the free newsletter for document operations. Your questions on this topic are welcome. Send them to  Follow PMCmike on Twitter.