The U.S. Postal Service has aggressively moved to reduce costs by consolidating its processing network and realigning its delivery facilities. However, it has essentially eliminated rail transportation, which is the least costly way to move mail long distances.
During the recent economic downturn, railroads invested heavily in infrastructure to improve service. Private industry shippers of time-sensitive materials have responded to these improvements by shifting volume from highway to rail. UPS (the largest rail customer in the U.S.) attempts to put any package traveling over 750 miles on rail. JB Hunt, one of the Postal Service’s largest highway contractors, has shifted a substantial freight volume to rail and now earns more than one-third of its overall revenue from intermodal rail transportation.
The potential benefits to the Postal Service are clear. Rail is a less expensive and more environmentally friendly transportation mode compared to trucking. Recent estimates show that intermodal rail service can improve fuel efficiency by about 3.5 times relative to highway tractor-trailer service. In addition, rail gives the Postal Service more capacity flexibility as this mode can operate one-way, while highway transportation must be purchased in round-trips. Since Postal Service volumes tend to flow from north to south and east to west, utilizing rail would avoid the cost of paying for empty or near-empty trucks on the return trips. Rail is also far less susceptible to the weather interruptions that can wreak havoc on highways.
The U.S. Postal Service’s network was designed to deliver First-Class Mail in 1 to 3 days. If you drop a First-Class letter going to a local address in the mail, you can expect it to be delivered the next day.
These basic delivery standards date from a time before e-mail and other electronic methods of of communication. Now, as some First-Class Mail shifts to electronic alternatives, are these service standards worth the cost?
The overnight First-Class Mail service standard requires the Postal Service to keep its processing plants open through the night and on Sundays. The Postal Service needs more labor, machines, and facility space to meet the compressed time schedule. Two trips are often needed to take mail to the delivery unit so that carriers can start sorting manual mail while machines at the plant finish sorting automated mail. In addition, the tight transportation windows required by the overnight service standard limit the size of plants’ service areas, reducing the Postal Service’s ability to consolidate the network.
In today’s world we have the opportunity to do just about anything with just the click of a mouse and a few key strokes. Recent studies show online retail sales continuing to grow despite the economic slowdown and decline of overall retail sales. A previous blog, Could Radio Frequency Identification Make the U.S. Postal Service the Premier Delivery System, stated, “Last year Americans spent $155.2 billion shopping online. This year Americans are projected to spend more than $190 billion.” Purchases made online have to be shipped and this provides a great opportunity for the Postal Service to increase parcel delivery service.
The Postal Service delivers almost half the world’s mail and more than 171 billion pieces annually, of this amount, roughly 3 billion are packages (Source: 2010 Report on Form 10-K, United States Postal Service). In addition, the Postal Service is often the last mile option for delivering FedEx, UPS and DHL packages. In 2007, if given a choice, 46 percent of consumers would select the Postal Service to deliver their packages.(Source:Package Delivery Study conducted by comScore, March 2007.)
The U.S. Postal Service has experienced a significant decline in mail volume in recent years, yet its contracted surface transportation remains largely unchanged. While mail volume dropped almost 16 percent from fiscal year 2008 to 2010, the Postal Service contracted out around 1 percent more miles of highway transportation over the same period. During the same time, the Postal Service has had considerable success minimizing the number of labor hours employees spend on mail processing.
The following factors may have mitigated the effects on transportation from a volume drop:
• Network Distribution Center restructuring.
• Postal Service efforts to move more mail from air to surface transportation.
• Postal Service efforts to sell the newly empty space to other shippers through a collaborative logistics program.
Transportation represents the second largest cost component for mail delivery after labor, but the Postal Service has substantially more authority to cut contracted miles. The Postal Service could use its greater flexibility to end unnecessary contracts, alter necessary contracts, or redesign the system altogether. Highway transportation provides a strong opportunity for cost savings.
What do you think of the current contracted surface transportation infrastructure?
How would you adjust to new mail volumes?
This blog is hosted by the OIG’s Risk Analysis Research Center (RARC).Read More
Advertising mail is a core product for the U.S. Postal Service. It is an important way for businesses to reach their customers, but many local small businesses and others underuse or avoid advertising mail. The rules, rates, and regulations can be complex and confusing. For saturation mailings, simplified addressing allows businesses to use a simple “Postal Customer” address instead of a full street address. While the Postal Service has tested a number of simplified address products in the past, early this year it rolled out a national product available for all “flat-size” saturation mailings.
In a recently released white paper titled Simplified Address Mail: An Easier Way for Small Businesses to Reach Local Customers, the Office of Inspector General, Risk Analysis Research Center lays out the advantages of the simplified address mail concept, which could potentially bring in over $1 billion in new revenue if fully implemented. Among the paper’s key findings:
- Simplified address stems from the Postal Service’s core, hard-copy mail delivery business and could help keep mail relevant in an increasingly digital world.
- Adding profitable simplified address mail volume could lower average unit costs and make universal service more affordable for all current and potential mail users.
- Simplified address makes advertising mail easier to use and far less expensive for organizations that have traditionally shied away from directly using the mail.
- Simplified addressing has long been the standard practice among foreign posts and often accounts for a significant proportion of their mail volume. The Postal Service has been the sole exception.