The Bright Spot
Other factors causing the decay of first-class single-piece mail include consumers sending personal e-mail instead of letters and the ability of e-mail to handle much larger electronic attachments than just a few years ago. "We are feeling the pinch of businesses that used to want to send a presentation as Express Mail," he said. "Were all feeling the pinch of whats happened in the overnight document market."It also isnt helping that the price of a first-class postage stamp is going to increase in January from 37 cents to 39 cents.The fact that the increase is the first for postage stamps since 2002 may be little comfort to consumers weighing their data communication options. One small and short-lived bright spot for first-class mail is happening this month: holiday greeting cards, which appear to have not been significantly impacted by e-mail. Click here to read more about the shopping seasons effect on e-commerce. "Its a very personal way of acknowledging the holidays," he said, adding that putting printed e-mails on a fireplace mantel doesnt quite feel the same. The reason the first-class volume increased is that business communicationsincluding the ever-popular mass-mailed unsolicited material otherwise known as junk mailshot up 3.9 percent, just barely overtaking the regular first-class drop of 3.8 percent and giving first class its one-tenth of 1 percent increase. "We are very pleased to be in the positive side. Thats good news to the postal service," Cochrane said. The first class segment that increased is officially called workshare, and it covers discounted business mail that businesses process in a particular way to make it easier for the post office to handle. The USPS increase in those business communications is impressive given that it wasnt that long ago that some were predicting the death of USPS junk mail at the hands of e-mail SPAM. The rationale was that the dramatically lower per-message cost of SPAM would have companies pouring their mass messaging there. But that hasnt happened, and Cochrane argues that there are a few reasons why. Mostly, he said, the ease of e-mail spam may have been its undoing. Consumers could instantly delete multiple spam messages and they would be gone, whereas junk mailwith its well-designed attractive imageryoften sits on kitchen tables for hours before being thrown out, periodically luring a curious consumer. "E-mail and pop-ups are simply too easy to delete," he said. "When people solicit through the mail, the direct-mail companies, the advertising companies, they are looking for a good close rate. Whats the response rate for spam? If youre going to sink dollars into a campaign, youre looking for a return on your investment." An even brighter spot for the USPS this year is the package business, where tracking services and other options are improving. E-commerce is sharply increasing the number of packages that are being shipped. Many of those purchases would have happened at brick-and-mortar locations and picked up at the retailer, but they are now being shipped. eBay is shipping packages that used to be the purview of garage sales, and its typically using the USPS for those shipments, Cochrane said. The USPS is also making some money leveraging its location-at-every-ZIP-code operation. Package competitors DHL (DHL At Home), Fedex (SmartPost) and UPS (UPS Basic) are partnering with the post office for last-mile deliveries in certain situations where the Post Office can deliver it more cost-effectively than could the other package shipper. Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on technologys impact on retail.