U.S. Postal Service leaders were full of surprises today, with perhaps the biggest being that they are able to change course and adapt when necessary. Evidence of intelligent life at L’Enfant Plaza (postal HQ) today included:
- Window envelopes: USPS announced it was backing off its plans, revealed only six days ago, to change the specifications for window envelopes in May. As Dead Tree Edition pointed out in “It’s curtains for the window envelope”, that would have outlawed all of the standard sizes of window envelopes and no doubt sent billions to landfills. The announcement says the Postal Service will work with industry to modify mailpiece standards more gradually. It still doesn't explain the interest in altering window envelopes, but some postal employees have commented that having the windows too close to the bottom edge causes them to get jammed in sorting equipment.
- Five-day-per-week delivery: Postmaster General Jack Potter asked a Senate subcommittee for the authority to suspend delivery temporarily on “the lightest volume days.” He didn’t offer specifics and said he would implement 5-day delivery “only when absolutely warranted by financial circumstances.” But with USPS possibly heading toward a $6 billion loss this year (double last year’s loss), Potter can't very well ignore an opportunity to save several billion annually -- though skipping Saturday delivery could hurt such publishers as The Wall Street Journal, the Detroit News, and such weekly magazines as Time, BusinessWeek, and People.
- No extra rate increase: Potter also demonstrated that postal officials understand price elasticity when he rejected calls for an “exigent” (emergency) price increase. “Driving up prices will only drive customers away,” he said, citing the loss of catalog volume after the big 2007 price increase for Standard flats. As I noted in “Postal costs to go up less than 4% – maybe”, that sensitivity to the plight of catalogs may mean higher-than-average price increases in May for Standard-class letters.
- Facility consolidation: Potter diplomatically reminded Congress members that they often prevent USPS from becoming more efficient by trying to block the consolidation of “duplicative mail-processing operations.” He noted that everyone favors greater efficiency but “that support often weakens considerably when a specific change is proposed for a specific community.”
I’ve been generous in my criticism of the Postal Service, so it’s only fair that I offer praise when it’s warranted. The change of position on window envelopes occurred at light speed by federal-government standards. And Potter showed that he's not counting on Congress, mailers, or a miraculous economic turnaround to bail out the Postal Service. He recognizes that USPS must get smaller, including a 15% staff reduction at headquarters, and make tough choices to remain viable.