The annual stats released by the U.S. Postal Service show the continuing impact of e-commerce and e-mail, with letters plummeting but packages more than making up the difference. For the first time in several years, overall postal shipments rose.
The Internet continues to take its tollboth pro and conon the U.S. Postal Service, but the post office may be starting to win the fight.
For the first time in several years, the USPS reported an increase in first-class shipments, albeit a nominal one of one-tenth of one percent.
But thats the first time in several years that the USPS didnt report a sharp drop in first-class mail.
About 1.1 billion fewer pieces of snail mail were sent in 2004 compared with 2003, and thats on top of an almost 3.5 billion drop from 2003 compared with 2002 and a 1.3 billion drop from 2002 compared with 2001.
All told, the governments figures last year showed that Americans sent 103.7 billion pieces of first-class mail in 2001 and only 97.9 billion pieces in 2004, a loss of some 5.8 billion pieces of mail or about a 6 percent drop.
In 2005, that number picked up a little ground and closed out the year just shy of 98.1 billion.
The last yearprior to 2005when the number of first-class mail increased was from 2000 to 2001, when the number of first-class letters sent increased from 103.5 billion to 103.7 billion.
But the first-class story is a lot more complicated than those numbers suggest.
The traditional kind of consumer first class trafficconsisting mostly of bills and bill payments plus personal correspondenceactually plummeted 3.8 percent, to 45.9 billion pieces.
USPS officials attribute that loss overwhelmingly to electronic payments and a consolidation of bills within credit cards, a portion of which are also paid electronically.
"There is a pretty healthy erosion of single-piece mail," said James P. Cochrane, manager of package services for the USPS. "People are finding an alternative way to pay."
Cochrane said USPS officials are still going to try and make a case to businesses and consumers that bill payments through the mail is still a good way, but he concedes its likely a trend that wont be reversed.
"There might be some opportunities to continue to try and enhance the value of paying by mail. We havent thrown the towel in on that yet," he said. "The U.S. population prefers to get their bills by paper in the mail."
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Evan Schuman is the editor of CIOInsight.com's Retail industry center. He has covered retail technology issues since 1988 for Ziff-Davis, CMP Media, IDG, Penton, Lebhar-Friedman, VNU, BusinessWeek, Business 2.0 and United Press International, among others. He can be reached by e-mail at Evan.Schuman@ziffdavisenterprise.com.