direct mail, Fundraising, Marketing, Media, USPS

USPS Cuts To The Chase

USPS pops you an email of today’s delivery.

140 billion images per year, some right to your smartphone.

Have you noticed what’s arriving in your mailbox these days? For many of us, getting Informed Delivery Service saves us from a trip down an icy driveway.

Over a year ago, we signed up for Informed Delivery, and I told you about it.  It’s like X-Ray vision, or electronic surveillance, though that sounds ominous.

American Girl’s catalog and URL are displayed in your email.

Their catalog arrives the same day.

The email alert provides a URL that takes you directly to their website.

The USPS emails you hours before delivery, sending a set of pictures of today’s mail.

In case you have forgotten, the USPS scans over 140 billion letters a year.

The Heifer letter follows their email.

Each of those scans creates a jpg file.  Because of the Intelligent Mail Bar code on the envelope, it tracks that mail to you.   When you sign up, they take your email address, and voila: you have x-ray vision, kind of.

What is really cool, and smart of the post office, is that they have now introduced a URL hyperlink service for advertisers to catch you at your computer, laptop, mobile phone.  Rather than wait for the hike to the mailbox, you can open the piece on line.

Hammacher is America’s oldest catalog company, and also a memorable tongue twister.

USPS knows a multi channel approach includes direct mail, email and web.

And that’s what people are doing.  Advertisers like Flemings Steakhouse, American Girl, Soft Surroundings, Heifer International, Hammacher Schlemmer are taking advantage of the USPS service to get into your heads, if not your hands, as rapidly as possible.

Soft Surroundings invites you into their catalog.

If you haven’t signed up for Informed Delivery at home, you should.  Not only does it tell you what’s coming, you are also on alert for when something does not arrive, like a paycheck, or a bill.

So: you can just wait for the mail, and pursue your daily rituals of fetching for it, or, cut to the chase, and see it now.

 

Thanks for reading!  No, I am not a shill for the USPS, but I do believe that it is taking the right steps to be relevant in a changing world.

 

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Culture, direct mail, Government, Marketing, Media, USPS

Somehow, The Mail Still Goes Through

Since we last looked, in August, the USPS has broken through another quarter, and published its latest report on Revenues, Pieces and Weights. For you marketers and mailers, here are some stats, and following that, another look at the USPS’s ironic, weird situation.

The good news: direct mail was up by 337,627,000 pieces, a 1.8% increase over Q4 a year ago.  The surge was due to the mid-term election mail, and if you are counting, in the last three months it delivered one additional piece of mail to every addressable soul living in the country.

The Princess Diamond..lost?

The bad news: full year direct mail was down 1.4%, or missing by 1,066,486,000 pieces.  In fact, the shortfall totaled 115,925 tons of mail.  That’s the equivalent of losing the Princess Cruise Lines’ Diamond, which by the way carries 2,760 passengers.  Imagine if it had gone missing.

The bright spot on the USPS horizon however is the growth of parcel delivery.  Package service mail and parcel delivery revenues are up 12% for the year, a happy indication of the robust growth of online ordering.

“Just leave it in between the doors.”

But just when you are feeling that the USPS has a rosy future in parcel delivery, be warned that companies like Amazon, Walmart and Target, the post office’s largest three customers, are now researching ways to do their own “last mile” deliveries.  Watch out, a robot may drop through your roof sometime soon.

Indeed, the parcel delivery business has its own costs, not the least of which are fuel, trucks, planes and drivers.  Did you know that there is a shortage of truck drivers?  USPS transportation costs in the past year were up 8.6% , or by $623,000,000.

Overall, the USPS reported nearly $71 billion in revenues from operations, placing it just behind Target (#39 on the Fortune 500 with $71.8B) as a business enterprise.  As the media enthusiastically reports, the post office missed its bottom line by nearly $4 billion, half of which is owing to pensions and health benefits accruals.

Which is a major source of consternation at the USPS.  Indeed much of the company’s 10K discusses the burdens of pre-funding according to federal government department rules, much different than the private sector.  As a result, it takes the expense on the books, keeps the cash, and adds it to its liabilities.  To date, the USPS must pre-fund $67 billion to employees’ and retirees’ health and pension benefit funds.

For your information, there are 497,000 career employees and 600,000 retirees to provide for. The USPS is the #3 employer in the United States, right behind Amazon, USPS #1 customer, which had 589,000 on the payroll.  The country’s top employer: Walmart, #2 USPS customer, with 2,300,000.

The bigger irony of the USPS is that it is a business, run by business people, but by government rules.  By law, it cannot make changes in products, pricing or service without federal approval.  Its wages, health and pension obligations are modeled on federal department standards.   And isn’t it rich then, that its Board of Governors is subject to Senate approval, and has been short four governors since 2014, the last time the Senate voted to approve them.  It cannot raise a quorum.

In return for federal oversight, it is granted monopoly rights to make door-to-door delivery of mail.  Only recently has its parcel service entered the competitive arena, where it is growing nicely.

Remarkably, despite the USPS financial shortfall of $4 billion, it receives no tax dollars.  Compare that to 18 Federal departments which are entirely tax-funded.  In terms of tax-funded budget, the USPS’s closest federal cousin would be the EPA with a budget of $5.7 billion….nowhere near the Departments of Education $68B, Energy $28B, Homeland Security $44B or Health & Human Services $65B.

Compared to these budgeted costs, it is distressing to see the public criticism the post office endures.    Fortunately, the White House has taken initiative to turn the situation around.

Still, the business continues to grow and manage.  Last year it added 1.2 million new addresses to its rounds, and processed 37 million address changes. It delivered, and picked up 148 billion pieces of mail, six days a week. All in, it drives and walks by 157 million addresses every day.

At a supposed cost of $4 billion, that’s not bad!

 

 

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Culture, direct mail, Media, Science, Thank You, USPS

You Are Still On My List

A written card, delivered by mail. Old fashioned, and meaningful.

This morning, CBS Sunday Morning with Jane Pauly featured the story of a father in Valdosta, Georgia who has sent over 20,000 post cards to his kids since 1995. The kids have saved every one, and their bookshelves are packed with volumes of fatherly words to his children.

As a devout postal fan, I was intrigued and pleased that there was a fellow writer who still believed in sending cards and letters.  Indeed a while back I wrote about the beauty of the written thank you note.

It drove me to look at the latest USPS Revenues Pieces and Weights report that measures the postal pulse of the nation. What I found was both disturbing, and a little puzzling.

Direct mail surrendered some market share to the web.

We know that mail volumes have conceded their dominance to email and online transactions. Even direct mail, which is a vibrant, robust medium has also given up share to the web.

But what was revealing about our culture are the declining totals of personal mail for the last three months, from October to December, 2017.

Simply put, we stopped writing.

Year over year, the Q4 volume of “single” letters slipped 5.9%. A blip? No, because single letters had dropped 5.1% the previous Q4 as well.  A single letter is typically a bill payment, a business letter, or a personal letter.  Or perhaps a greeting card.

The Greeting Card Association reports 7 billion cards are produced every year.

Percentages don’t really tell the story though. This past quarter, the single letter volume dropped 313,044,000 pieces.

To put that into terms we understand, I remind you that every Q4 we celebrate Halloween, Remembrance or Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and approximately 75,000,000 birthdays.

The USPS counter selection is not encyclopedic, but it is enough to trigger the impulse.

The Greeting Card Association reports that we purchase over 7 billion greeting cards every year.  And it turns out that the USPS delivered 17.5 billion single letters in 2017.   Maybe the remaining 10.5 billion single letters are just business and bill payments.  So, did we stop sending personal letters, or did we stop paying our bills?

The answer again pops up in the USPS reports.  In 2017, Presort First Class letters, aka, bulk business letters dropped over 5%: 787 million fewer bills and statements going out; fewer checks coming back.

It further develops, according to the USPS 2016 Householder Diary that Americans sent 3.6 billion letters “household to household”.

Conclusion: consumers are doing their business online, receiving and paying their bills electronically.

This is a huge relief to me, because it means that we are still writing personal cards and letters…I think.

For certain, the volume will never drop to zero, because of the persistent efforts of a father in Valdosta who still writes his kids every day.

How often do you?

Thanks for sharing!  If you would like to see the USPS reports for yourself, click here!

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direct mail, Government, Marketing, Media, Thank You, USPS

Their Appointed Rounds

The United States Postal Service closed out their fiscal year September 30.  Never mind that the rest of the world goes by the annual calendar; the USPS wanted to beat the Christmas rush.

All in, the giant continues to perform well, within the confines of its quasi-government walls.  I wish the rest of the Federal government departments spent as much time looking after their own performance and expenses as does the USPS.

But from the latest Revenues Pieces And Weights report, here are a few glimmers of surprise and excitement.

  1.  It is a $69.6 billion dollar enterprise.  In the Fortune 500 list, it hovers around #37, bigger than Target, and smaller than Procter & Gamble, both good neighbors.  Like both of these companies, the USPS is an indicator of the USA’s pulse rate, though we will admit that it has slipped a bit.
  2. In 2017, the USPS revenues fell $1.8 billion.  We know why.  The Web, social media, email have all disenfranchised much of the USPS core business: first class mail and standard mail.
  3. First class mail continues to fall, $1.9 billion.  Compared to last year, it delivered 2.5 billion fewer pieces of mail, a drop of 4.1%.  Why? Because we receive our invoices, checks and statements electronically.  We pay electronically too.
  4. Standard Mail, now called Marketing Mail, dropped 2.6 billion pieces, about 3.2%.  Why?  Last year was a mail-infused election year.  It was distinguished by huge volumes of mail, from you know who, despite his predilection for Twitter.
  5. Overall, in its market dominant categories, that is, where it holds monopoly rights, revenues fell just over $4.0 billion.
  6. In the open competitive markets, ie., parcels and packages, revenues were UP over $2.2 billion, a 12.5% increase.  Wow! Who knew?

The Web Taketh, And It Giveth

Here’s what I find impressive about the USPS.  Despite the constant nagging of the digital futurists who want to write the Obit for the post office, it continues to hold its own.  In an environment where Internet media are running rampant, the USPS has found a broad new niche: parcel delivery, a $20 billion business.  If anyone should be worried, it will be the brick and mortar retail stores. Ask Sears.  Ask Toys R Us.  Ask Amazon.

American consumers have taken to the Web in all respects, but at day’s end, they need physical product delivery, and the USPS has risen to serving that need.  After all, they were coming by our house anyway.  Their two main competitors are UPS and Fedex, the latter using the postal carrier to make the “last mile” delivery.

Neither Rain, Nor Snow, Nor Gloom of Night…

Postal carriers are the only American entity which visit 157,000,000 addresses every day.  They delivered, all in, 149 billion items in 2017.  They lifted 24 billion pounds, or 12 million tons, of physical product: mail, checks, magazines, parcels and yes, live bees and plants. The USPS has over 500,000 career employees and another 140,000 part-timers.  While this may seem like a wildly aggressive employer, I put it to you that the postal employee actually delivers, a claim many can’t make for other government institutions.

So hats off to the USPS.  It continues to fight the currents, and with astonishingly little help from its political friends, it far surpasses its governmental cousins.

Thanks for reading! If you would like to take a look at the USPS 10-K for 2017, click here!

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Culture, Media, Science

Tip-a-Tip-a-Tap-Tap-Tap-Ching

Typewriters deliver a physical honesty.  No spellcheck!

My 8-year-old grandson cautioned me that to write important stuff in an email for posterity was not a very good idea.   “It’s technology'” he explained, and pointed out, “it’ll get lost really fast.”

After 40 years in the writing, printing and mailing business, I experienced a moment of happy vindication.

He made a good point. Despite the pervasive and indelible nature of social media, unless you know what you are looking for, ten years later, that little nugget of an email is crystallizing somewhere in a cloud far away, never again to fall to earth.

I have spent most of this summer reading hundreds of hand-written letters dated between 1943 to 1947. These nearly daily journals record my mother’s life in England as the war was finally won, and reconstruction had begun.

Mom’s letters to her dad 1944-1947.

It is a safe bet that had the stories been written as emails, they would never have resurfaced. But these did, unbidden, and made for an arresting and revealing read.

They appeared in a box from her estate, neatly tied together with a shoelace. The bundles were collected and saved by her father, in New York. No internet cloud at work here.   But without doubt, their physical presence could not be ignored; they had to be saved, and they were.  As a result, her story was available to be read, 70 years later. I’ll share more on that another time.

The workhorse 1915 Underwood–engineering marvel.

Along with the letters, I also inherited her Underwood typewriter. As a child I recall working this machine, struggling with its keyboard, stumbling through sentences like a child inebriate, unable to find the right letters, the right case, the right push.

Last year I purchased some new ribbon to replace the one that was now leathery dry. The new reels came from England.

Today I installed the ribbon. It’s black and red, and very, very fresh.

Changing a ribbon: lost on today’s digerati

The Underwood is about 100 years old, and is an elegant, and beautifully engineered piece of machinery. It is built on a solid black cast iron base, and probably has about 500 moving parts, all in perfect working order. A priceless possession.

The Underwood’s engineering was as intricate as a Swiss watch…or a steam locomotive.

The QWERTY keyboard is easier to manage now, after a career of hammering away on computers. But there are some niceties, too. An exclamation mark (!) is accomplished by striking the apostrophe (‘) key over the 8 key. Back space, and drop in a period. Voila!

Wordwrap had not yet been conceived, let alone invented, so there is the iconic bell to warn that the margin is in sight. Better than that, there is NO spellcheck. What you type is what you get. The typewriter  has a physical honesty about it that today’s word processors cover up like embarrassed parents viewing a child’s essays.

Dad’s portable Corona was the picture of efficiency

At the same time I acquired the Underwood, I also received my father’s Corona portable. It comes in a cardboard leatherette case, tied together with a length of electrical cord. This machine is remarkably lighter, only 10 pounds.

The 1914 Corona flipped open to reveal a tiny keyboard

Opening the 100-year-old container, I discovered that the upper half of the machine, ribbons and all, flips over revealing a modest set of keys. These are faithful to QWERTY, but there is special efficiency in the Corona. The actual slugs have 3 different characters each. An informed operator can do upper case, lower case and special figures off of the small keyboard.  My father wrote his doctoral thesis on this relic.

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Three characters for every slug, a clever design.

Again, I marvel at the care and diligence of the engineers who designed these machines. They are quite exquisite pieces of working technology.

I recently read a book entitled, “The Iron Whim – A Fragmented History of Typewriting“, by Darren Wershler-Henry. This Canadian author has assembled a fascinating thesis about the role of typewriters in our culture. After our 30+ years of PCs and laptops and smartphones, his book is a brilliant perspective on how we have developed.  You think it’s just about stenos and typing pools?  Get the book.

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The #5 Underwood, 25 pounds of literary punch 

And then there’s Tom Hanks and John Mayer, who have just concluded a documentary “California Typewriter“.  They too are quick to tell you about the beauty of typewriters, especially as Hanks says– his typewritten messages “can never be hacked by the forces of evil.”  Apparently Hanks also has a book in the works, featuring three stories involving typewriters.  He has time on his hands?

So, returning to the advice of my grandson, I will continue to use my laptop, and thumb my way through the iPhone keyboard, but I am much more respectful of his intuition on these things.

Hard copy doesn’t go away, and especially in the long run, is probably easier to find.

 

Post Script: October 26–I just finished Hanks’ new book, “Uncommon Type”, a series of short stories written by the actor.  A great read!

 

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Culture, Government, Media, Politics

A Note To My Canadian Friends

Leading up to the final election results today I have received a pretty consistent flow of commentary through social media and the occasional conversation that suggested perhaps we have all gone nuts in the land of milk and honey.

Since this morning, I have been presented with sound bites of disdain, disgust, and some pithy, intellectual thoughts about the decline and moral decay of America.

The latest was a clipping from the New Yorker “An American Tragedy” with my friend’s comment, “A sad day…”

First of all, let me say, I totally get it.

It is extremely difficult to swallow the language, the rude, boorish nature of the President-elect. But before we blame the winner, we need to ask why such a perceived lout could still mop up the electoral college with such surprise and certainty.

It reminds me of a story the late Art Buchwald told a gathering of we Canadian direct marketers back in the ’80s. This was a luncheon of about 200 business folks at the Boulevard Club alongside Lake Ontario in Toronto.

Buchwald, columnist from the Washington Post, was introduced after lunch to give a few comments. Like a good speaker, he started with a story. Buchwald was about 70 years old at the time and had a dry, gravelly voice that tumbled words out of a mouth you’d swear was filled with marbles.

He was recounting his conversation with the cabbie who drove him downtown from the airport. “I said to the driver, ‘I love coming here. The people are nice. The streets are clean. The architecture is superb. What a wonderful city!’ The driver looked in the rear-view mirror and said, ‘You wouldn’t say that if you lived here.’ ”

The punch line drew lots of laughs predictably.

But you can say the same thing about the view from inside the U.S. today.

By the way, Garden Collective, a Toronto ad agency put together a wonderful 2- minute piece about, “America You Are Already Great“. Watching it on TV, I was speechless, with a lump in my throat, overwhelmed by the kind and complimentary upbeat tone of the message. It was a warm, nice message.

It reflected well on a population which has elected a young, progressive, educated, well spoken, photogenic and popular leader named Trudeau. We Americans can only be jealous, political ideology aside.

But when the verdict is that today was a “sad day” in the United States, let’s be sure why.

Undoubtedly, the election of a person who may personify “bully”, is hard to stomach. I am sure that the nose plug counter at the voting booths cleared its inventory faster than Cubs shirts in one day.

The question is, how many voting Americans picked the winner because they like mysogyny, crudeness, xenophobic language and gratuitous swagger. Not many, I’ll bet.

The reason they held their nose and checked the box is because it has already been a sad day–sad for many years.

Trump won his votes because of the raw facts: only 62% of the U.S. workforce has a job. 45 million Americans are below the poverty level. 43 million Americans live on food stamps.

There are twice as many tax-payer funded civil servants as there are manufacturing employees.   Our enemies disrespect us, and our allies don’t trust us.

We have a $365 billion trade deficit with China, and a $20 trillion national debt, exacerbated by a limitless annual budget deficit.

The economy has poked along at a 2% growth rate annually, for 8 long years.  We are engaged in a middle-east conflict that seems to have no end, with heavy weights like Russia and China picking a piece of the pie.  The icing on the cake: a $12 billion payment to Iran for a nuclear arms deal.

Today there are 61 million immigrants in the USA, myself included, and approximately 25% of those are here illegally, absorbing their share of welfare, medical, educational and social services.

While the numbers may lead to numbness, they add up to a diminution of happy times.  And they have done so for at least 8 years, perhaps longer.  So for a family which is struggling today, to hear the same promises again from the same mouths as the past, the pot finally boiled over.

We all depend upon the media for our news.  And it is the mass media focused on their one dimensional narratives on Obama, Trump and Clinton that have glossed over the very real problems which exist in the U.S. today, leaving you the viewer to wonder how could Americans could elect such an impossible choice for President?

We have been manipulated by pollsters, pundits and reporters who just didn’t see what was happening at street level.  And then in a moment of surprise that only Wile E. Coyote could express, they ran off the cliff.

So I get your disappointment.

I know you are hurt inside that America voted as it did.  But don’t blame it on the electorate.  The numbers are a record– over 120,000,000 made it to the polls, and split the vote like a giant slab cake right down the middle, with just a few crumbs left over on one side.  But hopefully you won’t call out every other American as the stupid one.

More likely, they are holding their breath, like me, and hoping that this sea change, continental shift, tectonic grinding will really change things, and for the better.

In the mean time, thank you for your goodwill and take advantage of a huge dollar exchange advantage: it is a great time for us to visit Canada.

Thanks for sharing!  And don’t stop coming south, we love to see you.

 

 

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Fundraising, Media

Why Don’t You Just Ask?

Charitable Giving, Social Media and Stickiness 

online donationsWhy is it that fundraisers can’t write a note, or pick up the phone and just say what’s on their minds?

Why do they have to float it out there, like smoke, or a bad itch, on Facebook or Twitter?

It brings to mind a lesson from long ago.

As a kid of 10 years old, in Delhi, my hometown, ice and skates were intended for hockey.  You know you live in a hockey town when the rink is reserved every morning and night for guys loaded down with potato sacks of gear and sticks.

Anyway.  I didn’t play hockey.  I was in the figure skating club which was a popular girls’ sport.  Not so much for boys, but there you have it.

Every year our figure skating club hosted an ice carnival.  This is a 2-hour show where the whole town comes to watch this costume extravaganza on ice, down at the rink.  Little squads of 7-year-old Sugar Plum Fairies skoot out in a circle and pirouette.   Flocks of Skunks wobble on tiny skates across the ice while the town band plays “The Baby Elephant Walk”.

The senior girls kick line does a bouncy number to a Gypsy tune and the crowds roar their appreciation.  The whole time the blue and the red lines plus 5 face off spots map the ice for us.

The crowds are there because they bought tickets.  $3.00 for an adult, $1.00 per child.

Those tickets are sold because we figure skaters were told to go sell the tickets.  Which brings me to the current point in a round about way.   I hated selling tickets…scary and embarrassing, knocking on doors, asking people to hand over money for a non-hockey event on ice.

This was an annual debate between me and my parents:

“Why do I have to sell tickets?  Why can’t people just go to the booth and get them?”

“Because you need to learn to ask .”

“What do you mean?”

“Look, you need to learn to ask people face-to-face for things that you need.   We need to sell those tickets.  It’s for the figure skating club.   Most important, the audience wants to know who they are giving their money to.   This is business.   You are the connection. So get out there, and ask them to buy the tickets. Now.”

Today, with the power and saturation of the internet we can sell anything we want online.  More significantly, we don’t have to ask, beg, beseech, or grovel before anyone particularly.  It’s a non-contact vocation.  We can just float an open invitation out there, and see who bites on it.

Skywriting comes to mind.

If our follower numbers are big enough, we might get all we need without a repeat advertisement.  If not, the public plea is repeated, with urgency, and perhaps a shade of disappointment hidden between the lines.

The shame of this online power is that there is no need to commit, or worse yet, make a plea or promise in return to any one.  Just as bad, the buyer or donor doesn’t get any nod or recognition for rising to the occasion.  If they’re lucky, the online gifting site says “Thanks– your receipt is being emailed.”  And that’s about it.

So I am all for charitable giving.  And any time someone just asks me, I am happy–no, delighted– to give.  Charitable giving is a way for someone to participate and to help, and most importantly, the giver is thankful for being invited.  That was my lesson from home.

So drop a line, or pick up the phone, and just ask.

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