direct mail, Economics, Government, Media, USPS

USPS: A Six-Month Stagger Into 2019

What can you say about a cursory glance at the most recent USPS Revenues Pieces and Weights report other than “CURSES!!” ?

What else can one say? They raised their rates around 2.5% last January, and six months later, revenues, pieces and weights are down.

SPOILER ALERT: This is all about numbers, which mean little, unless you are thinking about money.

You can see the details for yourself, but a cautionary word: the official RPW report above covers 9 months, from October 1 to June 30.   I have extracted the numbers below to cover from January to June, 2019.

 

In First Class Mail, which is all about bills, statements, cards and letters to mom and the folks, volume was off 3.2%– 904,000,000 pieces less than 2018.

Marketing Mail– direct mail was off 4.9%, — down 1,839,000,000 pieces from a year ago. Even more disturbing, the weight of those direct mail pieces also shrank about 2% from 1.49 ounces in 2018 to 1.46 ounces in 2019.

Leavened economics: 4 for $8.00 or 1 for $3.50?

The lesson here is that when you raise prices, despite your dominant position in the marketplace, people will buy less. We experienced a similar phenomenon at our favorite bakery when they raised the price of a cinnamon bun from $2.00 to $3.50. We used to buy 4, for $8. Now we buy one. Who’s happy?

The only bright light in the USPS tunnel to perdition is the package volume. Thanks to Internet orders, parcel shipments are still growing revenues, up 3.6%, though pieces and weights are off 1.7% and 3.3% respectively.

For wholly different reasons, magazine volume is also continuing its slide. Pieces are off 7.7% to 2,345,000,000 total delivered to as many as 159 million addresses in each of the past 6 months. If these magazines are all monthlies, there are approximately 391 million subscriptions in effect. About 2.4 for every household in America. While that may seem like plenty, just 5 years ago, the USPS delivered just over 3 billion periodicals, honoring approximately 502 million contracts, or 3.2 for every household.  But face it: if it wasn’t for the waiting rooms outside doctors’ offices, lube shops and office lobbies, the count would be less.

None of these figures should surprise you.  We all know the effect of the Internet on hard copy, paper, ink, and postal delivery.  Still, it is distressing to see a vital communications channel slowly price itself into a retreat, fulfilling a prophecy of irrelevance.

USS Ronald Reagan, a meager 110,000 tons.

But it’s not irrelevant.  Total mail volume in the fiscal year 2018 was 146 billion pieces.  That weighed 12.3 million tons. For those of you who are counting, that’s 108 USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carriers, soaking wet.

I have said it several times before, that the USPS, as an independent government agency has lots to be proud of, starting with its relatively minuscule cost to the US taxpayer.  Its 2017-2018 annual report showed an operating loss of $3.9 billion.  Sounds like a lot!  It’s 0.095% of the total U.S budget.   Less than one tenth of a percent.

The reality is, the USPS is still the bargain of all the media choices: it’s part of our lives, 6 days a week, with door-to-door pick-up and delivery, costing the taxpayer household about $23 per year, plus stamps.  Beat that, Amazon Prime.

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Culture, Media, Thank You, Thanks, USPS

Will You Write Me?

Back in Delhi, my home town, everyone got their mail at the post office.   Built in the 40s, this was the largest civic building in a small tobacco town of 3,000.  We climbed, what seemed at the time, a grand set of concrete steps, and entered by a glass and steel door into the lobby which held a vault of perhaps a thousand burnished steel postal boxes, secured by brass key locks.  The vault had a permanent pungent fragrance of paper, and marble floor cleaner.

I took those steps two at a time for several years through my early teens, hopefully opening our PO box #580 in search of letters for me.  The trick was to get them before the folks got there, because these letters were my first tentative steps into romance, and I couldn’t stand the investigatory barrage I would endure, had someone else seen them before me.  Worst of all, my brother, who might be on a letter quest of his own.

What’s the power manifested in these testaments of our youth?  To clutch the page that had been in the hands of someone special, reading over the words they had written bravely, carefully, giddily, for our entertainment and contentment.  I treasured every one.  And I wrote back in kind.

I just reviewed the latest report from the United States Postal Service wherein it reports that ‘single-piece first-class letter mail’ is down 7.3% from a year ago and 48% since 2009.  Now granted, the category includes small business invoices, bill payments and volumes of responses to direct mail. But among that steadily disappearing tide of mail, swept out to the depths of a dark, unforgiving and wordless ocean, there is a loss too profound to ignore, and that is the personal letter.

The post office reported that post cards are down 11.4% from a year ago. 67% since 2009. What clearer evidence can there be that we no longer send picture post cards from a remote station at the edge of Grand Canyon, or outside a cabana in Puerto Vallarta?  Maybe off a log boom in Vancouver?  Now, it’s Facebook, Instagram, IMs and Twitter all the way.

The reality we are ignoring is that hard copy has staying power.   Despite the pervasiveness of social media imagery, if we want to leave a trail for others to study years from now, we will have to rely upon the impulsive selfies we posted as the core sample of our achievements. There will be no words to explain.

Wise beyond his ten years, my grandson cautioned me not to commit stories to email. “That’s technology. It’s gonna disappear. You need to write it out, so that it’s saved.”

Smart kid.  Long live the printed book.

But more than the written word is lost. We received a letter from a long-missed friend a few weeks ago. In it, she recounted the routine of her days, the status of her children,  and their families, her health, the current politics of their village, and what to wear to a party.

While the news touched many levels of importance and substance–both high and low– it was the actual writing of these items that made the impact. Putting it all down on paper was a commitment to her personal history. Had she merely emailed, the missive would be digested and eliminated. Instead, her letter is saved, rubber-banded with others.

All our parents wrote, and frequently.  Last summer I took the time to read and absorb about 100 letters that my mother wrote to her dad in New York City. From 1943-1945, she was a newly married war bride, making a home in England while the war continued.  By 1948 she had moved to Delhi, and to a new world.  Her tale is all on paper.

Thank goodness she hadn’t emailed her stories, or they would not exist.  I learned more from those letters than I would have otherwise, even if she had told me face to face.

Letter writing isn’t difficult.  Once you start, it just flows.  The challenge is getting paper, stamps and envelope, and time.

Time is the premium resource.  It takes time to sit and consider what to say.  Why?  Because you know that your written word will be received, read, re-read and pondered upon.  Unlike a text, a two-line email, a photographic burst on Instagram or a re-post of someone’s pithy life motto, your written letter is a physical fact, and it will be read carefully.

It’s a shame really we squander our thoughts on slippery social media choices, only to find they are misinterpreted at the receiver’s end.  ‘Would to God I never wrote that!’ is a common remorseful statement following a late-night email that really did not come out right.

If you do consider taking up the pen, a good place to start is with a simple thanks. We keep an inventory of greeting cards–blank inside– which we use simply to thank people.  Thanks for the gift, the visit, the letter, the phone call, the gesture.  Thanks for just being there.

Some would call this just good etiquette.  And old fashioned.  But that again shows how much we have fallen when even ‘thanks’ is relegated to a text.

Meanwhile I still recall the adrenalin, the blush, the quiet excitement of opening that mailbox and seeing an envelope for me.  Irreplaceable, even today.

I hope you find the time to write!

“Well I got my mail, late last night, a letter from my girl who found the time to write…”

~Gord Lightfoot, “Big Steel Rail Blues”

“I read again between the lines upon the page, the words of love you sent me,”

~Gord Lightfoot, “Song For A Winter’s Night”

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Culture, direct mail, Marketing, Media, USPS

More Change In The Mail

For you marketers, the latest USPS Revenues, Pieces and Weights was just released. It is a good indicator of the health of the economy, but also reveals just how we count on the post office in a different way than what Ben Franklin had in mind.

First off, the USPS jiggles their year-end to March 31, so the numbers I show you here have been adjusted to report a full normal calendar year, January – December, 2018 and 2017.

First Class mail continues its slow descent, losing 4% of its volume over the past 12 months. That is, we mailed 2.2 billion less pieces. The big drop is again in business and financial mailings, as more and more consumers opt for email statements and invoices. Anyway, First Class mail shrank by 119,000,000 pounds, or nearly 60,000 tons.

The USS Ronald Reagan: 103,000 tons.

Marketing Mail, otherwise known as Standard, grew by 258,000,000 pieces. The percentage growth is negligible, which is mind-boggling, but considering the minimal, steady slide over the last few years, this is a big deal. Direct marketers put more money into mail. Remarkably, piece-weights are down.   Down 133,000 tons in fact. Hard to grasp?  It is a lot. Let me remind you, the USS Ronald Reagan only weighs 103,000 tons.

Periodicals, fell 7% year over year, representing 363,000,000 fewer magazines and newspapers. Put into terms you may relate to, that’s equivalent to 30 million monthly subscriptions, cancelled.  While page counts are hard to calculate, the average weight of a single magazine shrank by 0.178 ounces, too.

The rising success in postal delivery however is packages and competitive parcel services. Overall, thanks to Internet, catalog and direct mail order, the USPS volume grew 8% in 2018, by 477,000,000 pieces, or just over 1 billion pounds. That’s 530,000 tons, or for you navy folks: five USS Ronald Reagans.

Conclusions:

We are always pointing to the USPS as a struggling giant.  But it is a terrific barometer and thermometer for consumer behavior.  Why? Because it is the only organ in the U.S. that still takes the pulse of over 150 million business and consumer addresses every day.  It does not sample and extrapolate.  It measures the whole body of the nation.

Understanding that, we see the real change in ourselves: we write fewer letters and cards to one another, and prefer to get our important mail electronically: email and website.  We also shun the retail experience in favor of direct order over the Internet, and through catalog and direct mail.  Lastly, we are steadily running away from browsing the printed page for news. Instead, we go to a screen or tablet.  Still Benjamin Franklin watches.

Thanks for reading!  If you would like to see the entire USPS report for October-December 2018, check it out here: Revenues, Pieces and Weights.

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Culture, direct mail, Economics, Government, Marketing, USPS

USPS: Hidden Good Fortunes

Every quarter the USPS publishes their Revenues, Pieces and Weights Report. For the numerical savants out there, this is a feast of numbers beyond one sitting, for sure.

But the big story is, the USPS continues to perform in a stellar fashion, despite the ravaging onset of online displacement of hard copy as we know it.

If you think the post office is in trouble? Have another think.

Q3 YTD Results–9 Months Only
~The bad news– and what is publicly perceived, First Class revenues have fallen from $22.7 billion in 2013 to $19.9 in 2018. (off $2.7B or -12%).

~In the same 5 years, Magazines and Periodicals dropped from $1.3 billion to $984 million. (off $276M or -22%)

These two categories accounted for a $3 billion shortfall in revenue.

~Direct Mail, which includes catalogs, has ceded $294 million over the past 5 years. (off -2%) to $12.5 billion in the first three quarters of fiscal 2018.

Now for the good news.

In 2018, competitive Parcel and Package delivery has grown from $9.8 billion in 2013 to $16.9 billion. That’s a $7.1 billion growth, or 73%!

So we can certainly see how internet and digital media have blasted the legacy paper and ink communications business to smithereens.

What we did not see however was that online commerce has grown so rapidly that the USPS has found its newest niche: order delivery.

Year to date, 9 months, FY 2018, the USPS has delivered 4.2 billion pieces. Compare that to 2.3 billion, 5 years ago.

The USPS has another interesting report available, entitled Public Cost and Revenue Analysis, Fiscal Year 2017.

I like this report because it tells you how well it covers its costs of operation.  For instance, First Class Mail has a cost coverage of 210%.  Basically, its revenues are double its costs.

Direct Mail cost coverage is 153%.  Magazines and Periodicals, only 69%.  But the Package and Parcel delivery business, in the competitive markets, cost coverage is 155%.

Overall revenues for 9 months are $53.8 billion, up 5% from $51.2B 5 years ago.

These numbers indicate the ebb and flow of the door-to-door, pick-up-and-delivery business, and how the USPS is responding to America’s choices in communications.  True, the numbers do not account for front office costs, and legacy benefit and pension challenges, where there is a different story to tell.

But for making their daily appointed rounds, no one does it better than the USPS.

 

Thanks for reading!  If you would like to see these reports for yourself, have at it!

Click here: Fiscal year 2018 Q3 Revenues Pieces and Weights

and here: Public Cost and Revenue Analysis 2017

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Culture, Media, Thank You, Thanks

Running Off The Cliff

wile-e-coyote-2You know the Wiley Coyote scene where he runs off the cliff in hot pursuit of the Roadrunner. There, hung in blind suspension of disbelief, he looks at the camera before reality sinks in.

Then he falls with a vviipp or a boink. We chuckle happily at his dusty, bruised remains in the canyon below.

So it is that I now admit to a similar, sad and painful realization.

Last December 6 I advised you that despite the falling volumes of the post office, one thing blossomed like a fresh spring crocus on a sunny hill… our continued, warm-hearted custom of sending greeting cards.

Stamps 965 copy (1)Christmas, Hannukah, Thanksgiving, Halloween were all good reasons to pick up our pens and write.

I detailed in colorful charts how “Single Piece Cards and Letters” sky-rocketed in the last quarter of the year, from October to December. Poring over the figures from the regular USPS reports, I found that the numbers went up, even while general mail volumes went down.

It was, as I said, revealing our brighter side.

Mail may be an antiquity, but by golly, we are sending a card anyway.

wiley's canyonRevisiting that article, I discovered to my shock and dismay, that I had reported on revenues, not pieces. Aaarrrggghh!

Yes, patient reader, I misled you, big time.

The truth is, Cards and Letters for Q4, October 1-December 31, remain virtually the same share of the total, for the years 2004 and 2014— 27.5% to 27.7%.  Meanwhile the whole category tumbled 55% over ten years.

Do they jump up in the last quarter as our good intentions begin to materialize?

Yes, as always.  In 2004, an uptick of 18%, and 2014, up 22%, just in time to make delivery by Christmas.

But who’s going to calibrate a blip…a minor swelling…a mild burp in goodwill based on these numbers?  The fact is, we have laid down our pens.

With that, Wiley Coyote looks down into the abyss.  In his descent, he contemplates what went wrong.

wile-e-coyote-off-cliff-largeYes, email for sure.  Good grief, why send a thank you card for a dinner when a two-liner on Gmail will tick that off the list?  Want to bang off a birthday greeting fast?  Hit “send” and it’s done.   And is there any need to spin post card carousels in some tourist trap when you can celebrate your vacation on Facebook?   Hardly.  And so much for mailing pics of the Grandkids when there’s Instagram.

“Ahhh, to heck with it,” Wiley concludes as the ground rises before him, except… there is one factor to consider…

The physical delivery of the letter made a big, personal-brand impact.   When someone took the time to compose, and write, in ink, on a nice card, address and lick an envelope, buy a pretty stamp, and find a mail box, it communicated in ways far beyond digital.

It’s a nice thought.

~Splat.

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Marketing, Media

USPS: Taking A Retail Moment

USPS4

The USPS card display is there to capture the impulse to do something nice.

Kudos to the merchant-minded individual who suggested that the Post Office should sell greeting cards in their lobby. After all, if you want to receive letters, you need to send them too.

Part invites! Looking for a venue.

Party invites! Looking for a venue.

It turns out that the USPS does an audit every year to measure how long we wait in line. Two minutes is the national average. During that time we have a variety of scenery to peruse.

Beyond the oddities of humanity that lean over the counter to ship parcels bound up like mummified hat boxes, or to mail extravagantly addressed purple letters, or the restive small children that roll across the floor, we can look at the card displays.

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

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

The selection isn’t anywhere close to that found at a card store, and that’s good. We only have two minutes to make a choice. But the cards available still represent a middle of the road attempt at gentle humor, quiet sympathy, and friendly reminders.

Next to the greeting cards is a rack of retail gift cards, perfect for the last minute desperate search for an overdue birthday gift.

Stationery sets as starter kits. After all, if you want to get letters, you have to write them.

Stationery sets as starter kits. After all, if you want to get letters, you have to write them.

Across the lobby is another display of stationery sets, and party invitations.
When we are there to pick up our mail, or buy stamps, we have a brief opportunity to snatch a couple of cards, and whip them off to someone who is on our mind at that precise moment.

The USPS is demonstrating a simple case of vertical integration here. They are providing the total service: stationery, gifts, attractive postage stamps and delivery.

What better way to merchandise the universal service that gives you access to over 150,000,000 addresses across the continent?

The next time you visit your post office, take a look around. This is the perfect place to yield to the impulse to greet and treat someone, two blocks over, or on the other side of the country.

It only takes a couple minutes.

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direct mail, Economics, Marketing, Thank You

Ten Reasons You Should Thank The USPS

Teddy StampWe are all cheesed that the USPS is looking for a 1.97% increase in postal rates.  But before we run to our social media to complain, let’s open the envelope.  What are we getting?

1.   Door-to-door, pick-up and delivery.   Not only does a real person come to your home to deliver mail, but they are charged to pick it up, too.   Beats driving downtown.   And they do this 6 days a week.

2.   Equal representation.   The USPS is probably the only government institution which situates an office based on population density, rather than political handouts.  For sure, it’s the only federal presence in your community that isn’t there to administer laws and levy taxes.

3.   Legal authority.   A USPS postmark is an official seal, and when your letter is in the system, it’s a completed act.

4.   Jobs.   The USPS employs over 600,000 people.   It’s also the network that directly supports another 1.3 million people who use the mail to make a living, according to the Direct Marketing Association.

5.   The Grid.   There are 142,000,000 delivery addresses in the United States which are visited daily by the mail person.   The USPS grid is like a vast capillary system that beats nationwide, touching the most distant extremity.

6.   Innovation.  Maybe hard to believe, in the face of digital networks, but the USPS has refined and streamlined delivery to the point that it is cheaper to mail a letter today than it was 10 years ago.

7.   Protection.   Your mail is protected by federal law.   The space inside your mailbox is federal property.  The blue boxes situated across your community are safety deposit boxes, in effect.   Drop your mail, and it’s secure in the system.

8.   Culture.   What other government body continually picks new designs to celebrate on the face of a stamp?   Rock stars, writers, artists, scientists, athletes, discoverers… and they are BIG stamps too!

9.   Resilience. Despite a whirlwind of communications technology advances, the USPS still has cache, delivering nearly 500 million pieces a day.   When was the last time you saw a public phone booth?

10.   Fiscal control.   Yes, it has a $5 billion budget deficit.   Works out to $8,333 per employee.   The federal government has a $483 billion budget deficit.   $112,013 per federal employee.   In the bigger scheme of things, go figure.

Nobody likes price increases, but it is a sure thing that the USPS has done leagues more work to control costs than any of its government cousins.  In light of its value, can you really complain?

By the way, the price of a first class stamp remains at 49-cents after the hike.   Good anywhere in the nation.  Buy a bunch, they’ll last forever.

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