Second Thought: Wednesday, November 05, 2008
Going Postal (Not)

Forget disgruntled post office employees. How about the customers?


Most of us don’t use the snail mail from the U. S. Postal Service as much as we used to. Bills can be paid online, e-mail keeps us in touch with one another, and except for sending out Christmas cards, not many of us mail letters anymore.
But there are still times when we need an envelope and a postage stamp. Such was the case for me a few weeks ago. My daughter started college this fall, and (surprise!) she needed some money. I figured I’d do it the old-fashioned way, with a check in the mail.
My local post office on the near West Side had closed recently, and a new one had opened up nearby. At the old post office, I would go into the lobby, put my 42 cents into a vending machine, and out would pop a stamp. I’d affix it to the envelope, drop it in the slot, and be out the door in 30 seconds. No lines. Efficient.
But when I went into the new post office, I couldn’t find any vending machine. There was a long line, and just two clerks taking care of about 20 people. About half the folks were waiting to mail large packages — you know, the ones that take a lot of paperwork and a lot of the clerk’s time. The other half of us in line just needed to buy a few stamps.
When I got to the front of the line 22 minutes later, with my 42 cents in hand, I asked the clerk why this new post office had no vending machine. She didn’t know the reason, but said it was no oversight: This branch wouldn’t be getting any vending machines.
I found out later that the USPS plans to get rid of all coin-operated vending machines across the country by 2010, and many are already gone. According to USPS spokesman Sam Bolen, the postal service has already removed about 45 stamp vending machines in Tarrant County since 2006. Approximately 58 machines remain in the county, mostly in Fort Worth, and those will be yanked by next May.
Why, in the name of Ben Franklin would they do this? By e-mail, Bolen explained that the machines were aging, finding replacement parts was difficult and costly, and use of the machines was dropping off. Some busier post offices will be equipped with machines that accept only credit or debit cards. And more retail establishments — grocery stores and chain pharmacies — will be selling stamps.
As I was reading this new policy, I figured what my options would be if I was once again faced with mailing a letter or two. I could go down the street to a grocery store, wait in line to buy a stamp there, then travel to the post office and drop my letter in the slot. Or I could go to the post office, wait in line for the next clerk, give them my 42 cents, and then drop it in the slot. The way I figure it, each of those choices could take an extra half-hour compared to the old system.
I don’t want to sound curmudgeonly here, but the USPS’ strange view of customer service immediately jumps into my brain pan. The postal service seems bothered at the thought of providing choices for their customers. The notion that I might want to go to the post office to buy a stamp and mail a letter, and that efficiency may be a good thing for me as a customer, seems to by flying out the window with the snail-mail folks.
The postal service is pitching one other option for buying stamps: You can go to the USPS web site and purchase your stamps online. Brilliant — when I have a letter to mail, I can go online, buy the stamp, and wait for it to be mailed to me. That option turns the 30-second stamp buying process into a week.
Maybe the USPS is just trying to go out of business. That way they’d never have to worry about those pesky customers again.
Oh, and by the way, my daughter has never received that letter and check.

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