Stamp machines are being canceled

By JUSTIN GEORGE, Times Staff Writer
Published August 22, 2007

The machines seem as central to post offices as blue uniforms.

Their vending abilities are more powerful than soda and snack machines.

For the change in your pocket, they can sell you a plane ticket that will take your letter or bill anywhere in the United States.

But the machines that greet you when you walk into the neighborhood post office, the ones your kids seem mesmerized by, digging their little fingers into the metal dispensers, are going away for good.

The Postal Service is phasing out 22,933 stamp vending machines nationwide. Notices are appearing in post offices like West Tampa and the main mail processing center at Tampa International Airport: "THIS VENDING MACHINE WILL BE REMOVED FROM SERVICE."

Their extinction, which began October 2006 and ends September 2008, comes in part because the machines have become obsolete in an online age, and because they cost the Postal Service too much to maintain.

In 2005, the postal service spent $66-million on vending-related expenses, spokesman Gary Sawtelle said. Some machines, which are between 7 and 20 years old, earn less than they cost to keep in service.

The volume of first-class, single-piece stamped mail has declined by 11 billion pieces, or 20 percent, since 1998, he said. The Internet, which lets people e-mail love letters and pay credit card bills, is partly to blame.

People also are less apt to have spare change in their pockets in these debit-card days.

In 2007, stamps can be bought at grocery stores. You can order them online. Your printer can print them. You can call 1-800-STAMP24 and have them delivered for free.

Automated postal centers, a more modern version of the stamp vending machine that weighs and meters packages, will remain in lobbies.

But that's not good enough for some.

"I love those machines," said Delores Jackson, 59, of Tampa, who bought stamps from a machine that had a cheerful automated message, READY TO SERVE, just below a notice saying it was going to be taken out of service soon. "They're available 24 hours, and grocery stores are not."

And what about the people who buy 1-cent stamps to even out the ever constant barrage of postage hikes?

Buy "forever stamps," Sawtelle said, which are unaffected by price changes.

Around the country, about 600 postal service vending machine technicians are being reassigned as the machines go offline; 400 of whom will be eligible for retirement by 2010, Sawtelle said.

Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@sptimes.com (813) 226-3368.