Merchandizing the Mail

Posted April 15, 2010, at 7:35 p.m.

Chances are you will notice a change in the way the clerk at your post office will tell you what it will cost to mail your letter or package. It may be confusing or irritating at first, but there’s a good explanation.

For example, if you put a 2-ounce letter on the counter and ask to have it weighed, the clerk may say the postage will cost $18 or $19. That’s the price for the very best service: Express Mail with money-back guaranteed next-day delivery to most places in the country. Then the clerk goes down the price scale to Priority Mail with likely two- or three-day delivery, and finally to plain old first-class mail with possible overnight delivery but maybe a several-day delay. A recipient receipt costs another $5.54.

Getting that high-price, super-duper selection first may sound pushy to you. It may even cause some thoughtless person, maybe in a big hurry to do other errands, to go for the first choice whether it’s needed or not. A suspicious person might think the U.S. Postal Service has hit on a new way to increase its revenues before jacking up the stamp prices again.

But rather than doing a lot of conjecturing, the thing to do was ask Tom Rizzo, the spokesman for the Postal Service’s New England District, covering Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. As usual, Mr. Rizzo had a clear and informative response. And, as in past encounters, he spiced it up with a bit of humor.

First, what he calls a “short table-setting.” Like any other retail business, a clerk might ask: “Want just the burger, or would you like a value meal? No? How about a drink, then? Small or large?”

Another might ask: “Can I interest you in upgrading your cable service? It would be much better if you bundled it with Internet and phone.”

Still another, tailored to a newspaper inquiry: “Just the Sunday paper? Can I offer you daily and Sunday at just a little more money?”

His point was that the Postal Service, which has received no direct taxpayer support since 1983, pays its operating expenses by selling postage, products and services. Population growth and inflation keep increasing expenses, while the mail volume that produces revenue declines.

Officially, Mr. Rizzo says the object is to let customers select the service that best suits their needs and offer first the products that provide the fastest service and now include insurance and tracking and provide peace of mind. “If price is a primary concern, of course we are more than pleased to assist them with other options,” he said.

He makes a good point. Business is business, and everyone else is dinging us, for fees at the bank, airplane fees for checking luggage and hiked-up credit card interest charges.

Still, old-timers can’t help missing the 2-cent stamp for a 1-ounce letter.

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