direct mail, Economics, Media, Politics

Found: The Hidden Miracle in the USPS

Spoiler Alert: This Is A Good Story About Numbers
Every year the media touts the headline that the United States Postal Service lost another few billion dollars. Politicians get huffy. The digerati are quick to call the funeral home.

But in fact, the USPS has accomplished an amazing business coup in its mail delivery management.

First, look at the current “bad news” available in the latest Revenue, Pieces and Weights report* for USPS full year 2014.   Figure 1 gives some highlights.

Fig.1.  2014 revenues were up 0.66% while volume fell 2.06%

Fig.1. 2014 mail revenues were up 0.66% to $49.53B while mail volume fell 2.06% to 151.9B.

Mail volumes decreased from 2013 to 2014. A 2.06% decrease to 151.9 Billion pieces. “Pieces” include letters, parcels, magazines and flats. The shrinkage may be attributed, if you wish, to a blended increase in price (postage) from 32 cents to 33 cents per piece. A 2.77% increase. But it probably has more to do with society’s use of email.   We would just as soon email Gran a singing birthday gift card as send her a parcel.

Dig deeper and we find that First Class volume shrank 3.25% while actual revenues increased 0.49%.

Postage per piece went up 2 cents, or 3.87%

What we know about mailing economics is that there is no elasticity. When postage goes up, volume goes down.

This is the fundamental truth of direct mailers. They maximize performance through testing list, offer, format and copy. The best performance becomes the economics benchmark. So when Standard Postage goes up 3.65%, we expect some mail to drop out, which it did: 0.62% less.

Amidst The Bad News, A Twinkling of Brilliance

November 14, the USPS presented its preliminary financial results to the Board of Governors. It declared a $5.5 billion loss in income. That made headlines. What was not picked up however, was its mail operations performance. You see, its operations income was $1.4Billion profit.

What that means is that the USPS moved nearly 152 billion pieces across the country to over 140 million addresses, six days a week, and did better than break even. What was the all-in price per piece to the mailer? 33 cents.

2004 Eye Opener

Now lets look at the real miracle of the USPS by comparing 2014 with 2004.

Ten years ago, it delivered 206 billion pieces for $65.87 billion.

Cost back then? 32 cents each.

Not bad! A one-cent increase in 10 years. Despite a 26% decrease in economies of scale, its performance eroded only by a penny.

Surviving The Ravages of Inflation and Restructuring

This does not begin to recognize the efficiencies the USPS has managed to achieve in the last ten years however. It disregards the massive cutbacks in volume, and the inexorable devaluation of the dollar. Look at the 2004 figures when they are expressed in 2014 dollars.  See Figure 2.

Using 2014 dollars it cost 40 cents to a mail apiece in 2004, versus 33 cents today.

Fig.2  Using 2014 dollars it cost 40 cents to a mail a piece in 2004, versus 33 cents today.

According to the US Bureau of Labor, we have experienced a 26% increase in prices. In other words, it takes $1.26 today to purchase what $1.00 would buy in 2004.

Applying the CPI to USPS figures then, we find that in 2004, it cost 40 cents to mail a piece, versus 33 cents today.

Standard Mailers would pay 24 cents in 2004 versus 22 cents today. First Class mailers would pay 47 cents, versus 46 cents today.

Magazines: 30 cents then, 27 cents now.

USPS: Economic Movement of Value

This government agency may have its critics.   The oracles may claim that mail is antiquated.   But they can hardly explain how well the post office has learned to distribute real property coast to coast at ridiculously low cost to the consumer.   Email and Internet may be instantaneous, but they both lack the credibility of hard copy delivered under government seal.

It can be said that mail is slow, but it maintains its cache because it is trusted.   We need to acknowledge the effort that the USPS has expended to bring us that service.


*The Revenue Pieces and Weights Report: