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March 23 2014 05:49 PM

You've probably heard about Canada Post's announcement to phase out home delivery in urban areas. When I read the news it got me thinking about the implications of such a move. Would it drive more consumers to opt in to digital delivery? Would people visit their mailboxes less often? Would the change encourage companies to push their paperless delivery channels more aggressively? How would consumers view the change?

The implementation in Canada is proposed to be rolled out over five years. Lots of things can change before a third of Canadian postal customers start feeling the effects of the decision to replace door-to-door delivery with community mailboxes. It will be interesting to see what happens. The conditions that prompted Canada Post to make this decision are nearly the same as those challenging the USPS. Mailers in the United States and the US Postal Service should keep an eye on Canadian developments as they unfold.

Community Mailboxes in the USA
I contributed to a LinkedIn discussion earlier in the year that covered the same sort of idea for USPS residential customers. There were some participants in that thread who thought cluster mailboxes were a really bad idea. I could see their points, but based on my personal experiences with the strategy I couldn't really find a lot to criticize. I think most of the shortcomings identified by critics could be overcome with effective planning, adequate communication, and intelligent implementation.

In the USA individual mailboxes are not a choice for some newly-developed residential areas. Instead of requiring developers or individual homeowners to procure, erect, and maintain curbside mailboxes, communities where I have lived featured cluster mailboxes placed strategically throughout the neighborhood. Each cluster served a dozen or so homes. I've never lived in areas where delivery at the door was an option. Though I have some relatives that enjoy such service I will admit my perception is somewhat biased.

One neighborhood where I owned a home converted to cluster mailboxes in the early nineties. Many of the wooden mailbox structures the original developer had built 30 years before were in bad shape. Some even fell down. All the residents paid a one-time fee to cover the expense of cluster mailbox installation which was much less than it would have cost to rebuild the rotting enclosures that each housed six individual mailboxes. For my family, cluster mailboxes were an improvement, not an inconvenience.

Just like the USPS, Canada Post needs to lower their operating costs. Reduced mail volumes and revenues have put them in a position of having to make adjustments in order to maintain mail delivery for all Canadian businesses and households. Also like the USPS, Canada Post is supported by its own revenues, not taxes. Canadian postage rates are going up. If eliminating door-to-door delivery will mitigate future postage increases, then maybe the idea isn't so bad - so long as the policies are implemented fairly and don't over-burden certain segments of the population.

Impact on Elderly and Disabled
One of those segments likely to endure hardship from the elimination of delivery to the doorstep is the elderly and disabled. Requiring people to walk from their homes to a community mailbox could be dangerous for some individuals in this group. The risk of a fall, of getting confused and lost, or becoming a crime victim is something that can't be overlooked. It seems to me that anyone who can provide the postal organization with some verifiable proof that depositing or retrieving mail from their assigned community mailbox is unjustly difficult should be granted an exemption. People with a real need and no other options should still be able to get their mail.

Daily personal contact between residents and postal carriers is sometimes mentioned as an important benefit of door-to-door delivery. There is certainly some truth to the notion that greeting the postal carrier can be the highlight of the day. I see that in my neighborhood sometimes. And noticing a change in the pattern could alert a postal carrier to a possible problem with an elderly resident. USPS employees have been known to contact neighbors or authorities when they suspect one of their customers has had an accident or become gravely ill. I'm not downplaying the positive effects of personal interaction. But this is not part of the carrier's duty. No one should be counting on them to keep an eye on elderly friends and relatives.

Mail thieves have been a concern for community mailbox skeptics. A bank of mailboxes that can be broken into all at once may be an attractive target. But placing the units within sight of residences or businesses, making sure they are well-lighted, installing security cameras, or arming the units with alarms could persuade the crooks to seek easier targets. With greater risk of being caught, mugging a postal patron on their way home from the cluster mailbox to steal their Amazon package of unknown value may not sound like such a great idea to the criminals.

Residents who use curbside mailboxes today would actually see an increased level of security with cluster mailboxes. Their outbound and inbound mail would be in a locked compartment rather than an open box at the street. Fewer parcels delivered to unattended porches could make residents more comfortable about using the mail. The chance of their online purchases being stolen because they were delivered when no one was home would be lower.

There's no question that walking a block or more to retrieve your mail is less convenient than a curbside box or tiptoeing out to your porch while still in your bathrobe. Building turnouts or other facilities for stopping by the cluster boxes on the way home from work or errands would be helpful in reducing the number of trips consumers have to make on foot.

No one likes making the hike down the street to find an empty mailbox; especially when weather conditions make the trip uncomfortable or treacherous. What if you could find out in advance if any important mail was delivered? With tracking enabled by intelligent mail barcodes, mailers of critical documents like new credit cards, statements, insurance claims, bills, or checks could use the information captured from the IMb destination point scans to compute the delivery day for a piece of mail. A process to notify customers via email or text could be automated.

Litter can be a problem in a public location where multiple households receive their mail. Just take a look at lobbies of Post Offices or apartment building mailbox units. Based on some comments I read from Canadians responding to the Canada Post announcement, carrying advertising mail back home from the community mailbox is perceived as a major pain point for some consumers. Thinking ahead, postal authorities should include secured recycling bins in cluster mailbox units, along with plans for emptying them on a regular schedule.

I expect that Canada Post, and the USPS if they ever go this route, will find that residents who have used community mailboxes or curbside mailboxes in the past will see the elimination of door-to-door delivery as a non-issue. Those who are used to getting mail right at their doorstep will have a harder time.

Skyrocketing postage costs affect everyone - even those who say they don't have a use for the mail. Postage can be a major component of any business' cost structure and those costs are passed along to customers in the price of electricity, banking fees, and products.

Any postal system faced with shrinking revenues, competition from electronic channels, and inflexible workforce and retiree expenses must look somewhere for savings. Keeping postage prices affordable and making reasonable changes where they can is a good strategy. Eliminating the majority of door-to-door delivery addresses in favor of a more efficient and less expensive alternative could be part of a solution and less disruptive than other more drastic measures.

Things to watch as Canada eliminates door-to-door delivery

1. How does consumer behavior change?

a. Do large numbers of consumers switch to electronic delivery?

b. Do they reduce the number of times per week they retrieve their paper mail?

c. Are there widespread complaints?

d. Does the behavior of customers who were switched from home delivery to community mailboxes differ from other consumers?

2. Does the change really save money for the postal organization?

3. Is the elimination of home delivery enough to have a meaningful impact upon postage rates?

4. If the change prompts more consumers to go paperless, does that put further pressure on the post to make even more drastic service changes or rate hikes?

5. Do mailers find they need to implement text or email notifications for customers when important mail is delivered to community mailboxes?

6. Do mailers adjust lead times to account for changed consumer mail retrieval behavior?

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.