This Article is About
direct mail marketing
snail mail
united states postal service
junk mail
expensive gifts
handwritten note
Save The Mails
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Save The Mails

I hear people talking about the United States Postal Service (USPS) going out of business because no one writes letters anymore. This is nonsense. People stopped writing letters when the telephone became a common fixture—many decades earlier. Some, particularly older people, continued to write letters to their friends (and get letters written in return) but this was an insignificant percentage of total postal flow. Greeting cards have increased nowadays simply because of the antique delivery service (snail mail!) --and peoples hopes that such hand-delivered messages are a sign of greater sincerity (especially if it’s got money inside).  Oddly enough, not so long ago, people eschewed the ‘greeting card’ as less sincere than the handwritten note—but enclosing money never goes out of style.

But even greeting cards (even Xmas greeting cards) combined with the vestigial letter-writers can’t come close to the commercial mail. I was a member of the DMMA’s Legislation & Policy Committee back in the nineteen-eighties, one of the major lobbyists for USPS laws and regulations at that time. It is difficult to even imagine how different the world of direct mail marketing (call it junk mail, if you must) was just those few decades ago.

One of the biggest sticking points for direct mail fundraisers in those days was the debate over whether ‘thank-you’ gifts were merchandise or a fund-raising strategy. At the time, the issue had relevance: as some non-profits experimented with the thank-you-gift campaigns, they began to see tremendous response and, naturally, started offering ever more expensive ‘gifts’. We see the results of that struggle today—fund-raisers will offer a thank you gift, but nothing very costly—and absolutely nothing that doesn’t relate to the cause of the non-profit organization.

Another big issue was ZIP+4—a program implemented to refine the geography of our nation’s postal routes beyond a simple five-digit distribution. It fell into disuse almost simultaneously with the rise of PCs and, soon after, the Internet. But it should be remembered that the USPS, right up to the advent of the digital age, had been growing by leaps and bounds—it was even regarded as one of the examples of our growing technological culture.

Consider this: there was a time when mail catalogs were so ubiquitous that several retailers (most famously the Sharper Image) opened for business without opening a store! And niche marketing was born. Magazines were considered important tools for keeping abreast of changes in one’s business, one’s retail purchasing, and the world in general. So it is not the fault of personal postage that is killing the USPS—it is the next step after the deaths of all its customers: Magazines, Catalogs, Newsletters, and the forced shift of Marketing from ‘junk mail’ to ‘spam’.

The magazines are all online now—the catalogs have all become e-commerce web sites that accept payment by Credit Cards or Pay-Pal—the Direct Mailers have always derived their power from the magazine subscriber and catalog buyer lists used to target promotions at the proper demographic. The mailing lists have all but evaporated—and direct mail advertising was the single greatest profit center for the USPS forty years ago.

Back then, the Postal Service could defend its shrinking domain only by enforcing the federal laws that prohibited the use of mailboxes for any non-USPS business—this remained a boundary to deliveries from Third Party Carriers (UPS, FEDEX, etc.) until quite recently.

I’ve experienced the worst of both worlds—I have a problem I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy: The Post Office doesn’t deliver to my house and the Third Party Carriers, until recently, were prohibited from delivery to my PO Box! In the earliest days of Internet retail sales, few sites specified what shipping method would be used to deliver my merchandise. There were many times, a few years back, when I swore I’d never buy anything online again. But, I’m an old hand now and I rarely have my purchases returned to the retailer as undeliverable.

We know, intellectually, that in the age before automobiles, every vehicle was horse-drawn—or the horse itself was the vehicle. But I once heard an old person being interviewed, and when asked whether she missed the quieter days, said, “O gosh, NO—the whole world smelled like horse-s**t back then. It was everywhere—you spent a lot of time trying not to step in it.”

Future generations will have the same disembodied knowledge of the days of the United States Postal Service. They’ll have no inkling of the relief one felt when the week’s TV Guide came on time, or the thrill of seeing handwriting on an envelope—a sure sign that an actual person had written one a letter. They’ll miss the childhood excitement of the arrival of Sears & Roebuck’s Annual Xmas Catalog (with the big Toy Section!) which provided me and my siblings with fodder for wishes and dreams for the better part of two months. There was a time when failure to mail to, and maintain, an annual Xmas-card list was just downright anti-social behavior.

Sears & Roebuck had the distinction of being the catalyst for passing a federal law to protect the Postal Service. In the days of early settlement out west, many storeowners were also Postmasters for their towns. When Sears & Roebuck catalogs came to them, they would often burn the whole pile-- Sears & Roebuck was offering the same things the storeowner sold, and at a lower price! Those early towns and cities of the Old West benefitted greatly from the Federal Protection against tampering with the government’s Postal Service—those Sears & Roebuck catalogs gave them access to everything that a New York city slicker could find and then some: fabric, clothing, beds, utensils, watches, gardening and farming tools, you-name-it—at the height of Sears & Roebuck’s popularity they were even offering a selection of homes—fully built houses delivered to any place from coast to coast!

The Post Office was such an important part of our lives before our present became so digitized—yet it’s fade from existence into history will go as unnoticed as the creep of progress that finally rendered it obsolete. I saw an op-ed article today (online, of course) that pointed out that the Pony Express, almost immediately replaced by the telegraph, saw the inevitable and shut its doors after operating only eighteen months. I take exception to the implication that our USPS is as obsolete and useless as the Pony Express—the Post Office remains the cheapest method of mailing letters and shipping packages.

The anti-tampering law protection and the commitment to serve all our citizens, rich or poor, near or far, are just two examples of what we would lose along with it, should the USPS be dismantled. I have nothing against UPS or FedEx or whatever, but what will they become when they are no longer competing with the USPS? Will their prices climb? Will financial concerns cause them to change their policies and reduce their services to the mid- and lower-income population?

If the Post Office is dying, why are the darn lines still so long?  

Street Talk

Thought provoking! Good points - including lines:-) Well done.

  about 1 decade ago

Thanks, CA

  about 1 decade ago

Good Stuff, Christopher. Part of the reasons the lines are so long is that it is too risky to mail from home these days,,, Had more to say but brain is already shut down for the evening. Good night.

  about 1 decade ago
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