Culture, Economics, Marketing

Along The Amazon: The Real Invasion

The Brown Marmorated Stink Bug: perennial invader.

For the two previous summers, our community has been infiltrated by legions of quietly intrusive stinkbugs.  They seemed to magically appear, just out of the corner of our eyes, posing on a wall or lampshade.  

Amazon Prime van passes the broken shell of a Macy’s store.

Little did we know that these were just the first wave, doing reconnaissance for the main invasion: Amazon. Now, virtually on every street, at every corner, we catch a glimpse of an Amazon delivery truck slipping in and out of view.

Amazon first broke into our consciousness in 1995 with a simple concept: a place to buy books online.  Their ads claimed access to all of the world’s contemporary literature available, and their warehouse was in outer space, “The World’s Biggest Bookstore”.  We might have listened.

Today Amazon is the world’s second largest company, by market capitalization, following Microsoft, and just ahead of Apple.  It has the world’s second largest retail sales volume, following Walmart.  

Barbarians at the gate: Amazon vans use shuttered Macy’s parking lot in Northbrook, IL.

It has up-ended the retail business model.  In 1997 3% of its sales were attributed to third party sellers.  Today, 58% of its sales come from third party.    In response, 2019 saw the closing of 9,300 big brand retail stores in the U.S.  The shift will continue.

The most physical sense of Amazon’s presence is its growing fleet of delivery vans.  In 2019, Fedex and UPS and the United States Postal Service delivered approximately 13.9 billion parcels in the United States.    But on its own, Amazon dropped 2.5 billion pieces at our doors.  According to Morgan Stanley, that will increase to 6.2 billion in the next 3 years.

The Amazon convoy. Dispatched regularly in 10-15 vehicle sorties on Butterfield Road.

I remark on these stats primarily because we watch the daily procession of Amazon trucks that travel Butterfield Highway, between Libertyville and Mundelein. The company has leased space to stage its fleet in an available lot on Technology Way on Libertyville’s west side.   There, independent owners and employees are regularly dispatched in squads of 10-15 vehicles at a time to head south to Allanson Road in Mundelein where they will pick up their allotted parcels for delivery.  The system is efficient, and it is supported by a good road, courtesy of Lake County.

Staging area in west Libertyville.

Just over the Illinois/Wisconsin Line, there is a vast Amazon distribution center off of US Route 94.  It measures several football fields in size, plus parking lot.  Not coincidentally, directly across the highway sits an equally large U-Line facility that makes shipping boxes. One wonders if there is a tunnel.  According to Amazon’s 2018 statements, the company has 230 million square feet of fulfillment space.  Its premises house nearly 650,000 employees.  One might also wonder how many of those people used to work for Sears, Macy’s, Pier One Imports, Abercrombie & Fitch, Office Depot, Victoria’s Secret, The Gap, and Payless Shoes.

This is not a critique of Amazon in any way.  The company’s mission statement is in part to serve a “customer-centric obsession”.  To that end, it has grown from simply books to sales of more than 100 million items.  Its website lists not a few business diversifications, but a vast portfolio of divisions relating to fashion, video streaming, groceries, pharmaceuticals, publishing, music, movies, web services, home automation and home security.

We can mourn the loss of the local store, but we have gravitated toward a business model that for much of our wants and needs, is just plain easy.

I wish I could feel as good about the stink bugs. 

 

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direct mail, Economics, Marketing, Media, USPS

The Last Post

This is my last post on USPS performance. If you are in the direct marketing or direct mail business, you have seen these before, but unless things stabilize, I don’t want to report, thanks.

The USPS Postal Regulatory Commission has just released the latest Revenues, Pieces and Weights quarterly report. They call it FY Q1/2020.This covers October 1 to December 31, 2019.

Cutting to the chase, I highlight these numbers:
1. First Class revenues are off $161 million, down 2.3% just for the quarter. This was supposed to be the Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween and holiday greetings season.
2. Direct Mail or “Marketing Mail” as they have renamed it, down $252 million, or off 5.4% during what was traditionally a good season.
3. Direct mail volume for the quarter was off 1.7 billion pieces…down 7.9%. Hello??
4. Periodical mail continues its slide, revenues off 7.7%, volumes off 7.4%
5. Competitive Packages and Parcel mail, revenues up $137 million, or 2.1%, but quantities down 68 million pieces, off 4.0%.

I suppose I am naiively conservative, but I really expected for this past quarter to shine, and I have been rudely shaken to grasp what everyone else has been saying for years.

On an annual basis, the numbers are no more encouraging. I have created the chart below, converting the USPS fiscal year reports to normal business calendar years: January to December.

Compared to 2018, here are a few highlights about 2019 volumes:
1. First Class revenues off 2.2%; pieces off 3.4%
2. Direct mail revenues off 3.7%; pieces off 5.6%
3. Packages and Parcels revenues up 3.5%; pieces down 2.8%

Clearly, email, chat, web, and social media has displaced the need to use the mail. The only beneficiary in this trend is the package delivery business, which the USPS has carefully cultivated, though the decline in pieces is still a concern.

If there is any bright spot in this numbers soup, it might be that the direct marketers who mail to live know what they are doing; that it’s the small local businesses which used to mail have opted for web and social media instead.

We’ll see, but unless they do, this is my last post on the USPS.

Thanks for reading and sharing.  If you are in the DM business, and have an alternative observation to make, I would love to hear it!

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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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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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Agriculture, Culture, direct mail, Fundraising, Wildlife

The Forest, The Trees, Or The Beans?

It’s not a secret any more that I enjoy reading direct mail. Not much of a life, you might suggest. Still, it guarantees a walk to the mailbox everyday, and a chat with our favorite USPS mail carrier.

My current discovery revolves around the offer I could not refuse, straight from the Arbor Day Foundation.

These good folks in Nebraska City, Nebraska are on a mission to blanket the country in a thick, variegated quilt of forests.  So when they selected me to represent a small portion of the people in Illinois, I was hard pressed to decline.

Why?

Premiums often trump the original product offer for appeal.

It is a fact that in many successful direct mail offers, it is not the product that gets the sale, but the premiums which come along with good behavior.  Good behavior in this case is responding quickly, and munificently.  In other words, pay up, fast.

The survey is a powerful engagement device, selling all the way.

In return for my promptness, albeit somewhat stingy in retrospect, I might receive Arbor Day’s special rainforest, cool-shade-grown coffee for a year.  Wow!  I am supporting Starbucks right now, but I can be swayed.

It was with this initial buzz on my coffee nodes that I rushed to complete the Arbor Day Tree Survey, carelessly pushing aside any concerns about what would happen next.

The Arbor Day Tree Survey for Illinois is an excellent example of powerful sales rhetoric.

It helps that I am a tree lover.  We live on a third of an acre, and have 17 trees.  I feel rich, and enjoy the annual blooms, the blossoms, the pollen, the seed drops, and the mounds of leaves I rake.

Arbor Day is celebrated nation-wide, thanks to the Foundation’s efforts.

I think the survey deftly gets all the right answers from me.  It lulls me into a positive frame of mind.  I race through the harmless queries.

They ask, ‘have you ever climbed a tree?…when you were a child, did you ever play under or amongst the trees?… did you ever collect leaves, acorns, or pine cones for a school project–or just for fun?’

These questions are softballs, and I hit them all out of the park.  “Yes!  I climbed a tree!  I lived in a tree!…I built a small condominium in a tree!..Yes! I played under a giant Beech as a child!…Yes! I just finished a vast collection of leaves with my grandson!  Yes!  Yes! I did all of that!”

Sophie’s Choice: pick one. But how?

These are soothing thoughts.  For a moment, I slip into a gauzy reminiscence of TV’s defense lawyer Ben Matlock, asking woodsy questions in his unassuming, folksy manner.

But that reverie is smoothly swept aside by a troubling vision of Patrick Jane, the thoughtful, boyish, enigmatic Citroen-driving sleuth in CBS’s TV show, “The Mentalist”.

The questionnaire asks,  ‘Which ONE of the following is the single most important function of trees:    Providing shade?  Providing oxygen? Being a source of beauty?  Absorbing carbon dioxide?  Filtering water? Saving energy by cooling our homes? Providing habitats for birds and animals?’

Like, how to choose?  This is some kind of arboreal Sophie’s Choice, with the bark left off.

The motherlode of premiums: plant your own forest!

Really, the questionnaire does focus the reader to the countless benefits provided by a our forests, here and around the world.  So kudos to Arbor Day for the survey approach.  It segue’s to some opinion questions, and then asks for a donation which opens the gates for premiums.  Big premiums.

Because I have asked for them, I will be receiving 10 Norway Spruce Trees, 2 Fragrant Purple Lilacs, a copy of The Tree Book, and a Rainforest Rescue Calendar.

And the coffee, for a year, I hope.

It turns out that the coffee offer is part of a sweepstakes.  The fine print is found on the inside of the envelope.  500+ words in 10-point sans serif type, arranged in block paragraphs with no indents.  My hopes of those rainforest-cool-shaded coffee beans are evaporating like dew drops on a hot car hood in July.

The 10 x 14 envelope costs extra, but its impact, complete with faux label does the job: it gets opened.

Speaking of envelopes however… I do applaud the package.  It measured 10×14 inches, for no good reason other than to dominate the mail box, and to get my attention.  It was printed to look like brown kraft.  A knockout on the face presents the image of a label, but looking closely I find it is a varnish over the original white stock, masterfully done.  This kit looks impressive, official, and urgent.

The power of data-driven variable imaging: customization.

Inside, there is a personalized letter, and it has a personal note referring to the spruce trees, just right for Libertyville, IL.

Alongside, I find a set of address labels, which are pretty much table stakes in fundraising, but they are optimistically entitled, “Arbor Day Foundation, 2018 Supporter”.  That must be me!  Their 2018 calendar further alerts me to Illinois’ Arbor Day being April 27th.

The mandatory address labels of fundraising, but tastefully designed.

So, I wait.  The trees are coming next spring.  The book and calendar, who knows?  The coffee, fearfully a long shot.  What I do know is that with every delivery, there will be a further prodding and arm-twisting for a gift.

While I am desperately trying to find a place to plant those trees, I’ll give it a thought.

Thanks for reading! If you would like the full appraisal of the Arbor Day Foundation, it is available here, at Charity Navigator.

 

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