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Digitization: Making the post office meaningful again

Evan Schuman | June 17, 2015
Postal executives see digitization as their salvation. But can anything save the USPS at this stage?

Also, the post office has always been about information distribution is as many varied ways as possible. The post office today still delivers some mail via mule (Grand Canyon), boat and hovercraft (Great Lakes) and snowmobile (Alaska). Those snowmobiles are themselves an advance. It was just 50 years ago that the USPS was using dog sleds for those same routes.

Other interesting postal details. Stamp Fulfillment Services, in Kansas City, Mo., is located in a limestone cave 150 feet underground. The idea is that it will keep stamps in better condition.

The same team that uses those mules is also evaluating flying drones. "Technology is evolving so rapidly at this point that I have a hard time projecting five years out," Cochrane said.

Tracking is a challenge. Last week, I received a package that was using UPS to ship, but it ended with a last-mile handoff to USPS. The instant the package was in the USPS's hands, tracking stopped. USPS did eventually send an update — hours after the package had been delivered, when I no longer cared about tracking. (To be fair, the email notification that USPS thought the package had arrived would have been a very welcome heads up had the package in fact not arrived.)

Much of the problem here is cost. USPS is by far the lowest-cost delivery agent. When it handles the last-mile deliveries, most companies deliver to the post office sealed crates containing a large number of individual packages. USPS doesn't know which packages are included until later, as the deliveries happen. "The problem is the handoff. I can't account for the fact that they choose to approach it this way and to not do the nesting," Cochrane said.

And that mail tracking system the postmaster general is touting? It won't be able to say which bills, checks or letters will be received. "Tracking every letter would require significant increases in postage," he said.

Therein lies the core issue. Without abandoning its low-cost nature, it can't match the delivery tracking of a FedEx, nor the speed or ultra-low-cost of email. Its only hope is to better the experience, to leverage the local workforce it commands. And to rely on American consumers not wanting to change their habits that much.

Between the army of employees and millions of people who hate change, this might just work.

 

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