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Snail mail survival

Post offices the worldwide discover how to take advantage of a Web universe - even as first-class mail volume has fallen.

Associated Press
Published February 7, 2008


Marty Sellers used to need about a hundred stamps every three months. These days, he can stretch that supply to last a year.

Sellers, 40, pays most bills online and gets financial statements electronically. The owner of Sellers Photo in Huntsville, Ala., he has cut down on mailing clients CDs, transferring images over the Internet instead.

"Even things like a birthday card, I will just send a happy birthday e-mail," he said.

Because many people around the world are like Sellers, the U.S. Postal Service and its counterparts in other countries are tapping technology to cut costs and expand into electronic services - including services designed to attract more "junk" mail.

In the United States, first-class mail volume has dropped 7 percent since 2001 - an average of 1.3-billion fewer letters, postcards and bills each year. A 15 percent boost in bulk advertising and other discounted mailings has offset only some of the loss in revenue.

Many postal agencies are having to serve more households because their nations' populations are growing but are getting less mail to deliver to each, said Dean Pope, general manager of business development at Canada Post.

"In order to sustain business in that formula, you have to find new services and products and find new revenue growth opportunities," he said.

One of those new services is Canada Post's Borderfree program, which allows Canadians to buy items from U.S. e-commerce partners, pay in Canadian currency and know taxes and fees ahead of time.

In France, La Poste will print e-mails customers send in and deliver them to physical mailboxes with registered notes and time stamps.

Tunisia's postal service offers a precharged payment service for paying utility bills and buying things online.

In Italy, a new digital certification service at Poste Italiane archives loan documents for banks so that years after a transaction a party can retrieve the original document with an electronic postmark as proof of its authenticity.

Not all efforts have been successful.

For lack of demand, the U.S. Postal Service canceled a few programs it started in 1999 and 2000, including electronic bill payments - which the private sector offers with greater success.

Now, most electronic efforts supplement traditional, physical mail. In the United States, that includes ordering stamps and packing supplies online and providing delivery confirmation electronically without mailing a receipt.

The USPS helps retailers like L.L. Bean Inc. generate preprinted labels to include with shipments for merchandise returns. Merchants, including eBay Inc. auction participants, can create shipping labels and buy postage online.

Luis Jimenez, chief industry policy officer for Pitney Bowes Inc., said the refocus comes as postal agencies find that mail volume isn't dropping as quickly as once feared. E-mail isn't replacing all letters and cards; partly, it's creating communication that might not have occurred otherwise. The Internet has created new mailing opportunities from e-commerce sales, digital photo printing and DVD rentals.

And many people remain more comfortable with paper.

"We're going to use more paper, not less, for the short and medium term," said Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster in San Mateo, Calif.