Monday, March 26, 2012

A Final Tale from the CPU Hit List

If you've read USPS's Local News Releases from 2011 closely enough, you'll notice that something unusual happened in Brooklyn last year: "USPS adds new ZIP Code in Williamsburg on July 1". Usually, the realignments I see in the Postal Bulletin occur in rapidly-growing Arizona. But postally–well-established New York City? I never!

The Gothamist presented its take on the story: According to USPS officials, the addition was made because "the existing ZIP code table could not handle all the new deliveries so we had to add an additional ZIP to accommodate all the new construction, population."

(The document presented in the article above (reproduced below) also exhibits a very embarrassing typo. Please note that stationery, the paper, is not the same as stationary, the adjective describing something that is not moving. Alas, spellcheck doesn't catch all errors.)

The point of all this is that USPS recognizes the need for additional postal services in this neighborhood given the population growth of the neighborhood. In fact, the author's experience suggests that the expanding neighborhood has overwhelmed the retail capabilities of its stately mid-'60s office. Conversations with postal patrons in the neighborhood confirm that this opinion is generally shared. In fact, when I visited two-and-a-half years ago there were signs posted trumpeting the nearby Better Letter CPU as an alternative to the line at the real P.O. I suspect it might involve the inclusion of two or three additional clerks to bring Williamsburg to the five-minute wait-time standard.

(At the end of my wait at the Station, I brought my postal card up for a hand-cancel for my collection, to which my clerk said he couldn't do it. After I showed him my samples and the appropriate POM regulations he said "you shouldn't have those" -- which is funny, because they're available online.)

Brooklyn, NY: Williamsburg Station post office

Given as the neighborhood is also effectively bifurcated by the Williamsburg Bridge buildup, adding a CPU on the other side of the overpass seems like a reasonable supplement to the existing postal infrastructure. USPS just doesn't build new classified units anymore.

Brooklyn, NY: Better Letter CPU

Better Letter has been an operational CPU since 2006, and it is the busiest contract unit I have ever seen. During my 20 minutes there I witnessed at least 15 customers, none of whom had to wait because owners Esther and Israel Wurzberger know their customers like the backs of their hands.

Alas, due to that obnoxious USPS/APWU contract provision that mandates the closure of 20 randomly, explicitly called-out contract units, the Better Letter CPU will be closing at the end of this week: March 30. (Each CPU that has not already closed will be closing at that time. Those in the Northeast outside New York City closed at the beginning of the year.)

The Postal Service won't be pleased with the amount of business that it will likely lose as a result of this CPU's closure. Inspection of questionnaires filled out by Better Letter customers suggested that many local shippers (who had filled up the entire front of the store with packages, for the record) would rather defect to UPS than deal with what one woman called "up to an hour" of waiting in line at Williamsburg Station. Here are a couple of samples:

An astounding number of locals had signed petitions and filled out page-long surveys expressing their thoughts. I'd never seen anything like it.

Here's a portion of the daily business conducted at Better Letter, courtesy the Greenpoint Gazette.

Another thing the Wurzbergers offer is trust (which has traditionally been one of USPS's greatest assets) within the large local Orthodox Jewish community. Busy regulars can drop off a set of packages and pay their tab later. How nice is that? Here are a couple of scenes from the local streetscape.

My favorite item was this sign on the back wall:

(Google Translate translates הפקר to "abandoned". Which is how half of Williamsburg probably feels right about now.)

The Wurzbergers maintain a related stationery business aside from the CPU in the back of the store, but this was their primary way of connecting with the community.

Unfortunately, someone at the Postal Service appears to have randomly selected this family-owned operation to be closed, and in all likelihood it will be for positively no redeeming reason. [I somewhat doubt that the Williamsburg Station would add three additional clerks (as that contract provision is in the name of union jobs) to provide as full or efficient service to the community as Better Letter provides them now... and if they did, I don't envision them being as gracious and involved in the community as Israel and Esther are.] For a growing community that clearly is in need of additional and efficient postal services, this closure clearly represents the wrong way to operate either a business or a Service. Does USPS play by Bizarro rules?

There were no P.O. Boxes at Better Letter.

The Greenpoint Gazette article is thorough and well-written, by the way.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Post Offices at Colleges

Most colleges in the country have their own private mailrooms. Many also feature an official U.S. Post Office or their own CPU. I've noticed that both categories of offices have been closing on college campuses at high rates. Many are also presently under closure study as part of RAOI. Here are some college campus POs, endangered or closed, that I've visited in the past.

I always question the closure of college post offices; after all, while the younger generations are supposedly those putting USPS out of business, they are also your future customers. Just about every other organization on Earth covets this demographic. But I digress.

Closed: Stony Brook, NY: SUNY CPO
I only found out about this while doing a Google Maps post office marker review; someone had marked this as closed. Lo and behold, it closed in December. Why? Who knows. Like most campus POs, this was located in the primary student center.

There is no post office within walking distance of this former location. (And due to the odd setting of this campus, the closest PO is East Setauket's: 2.3 miles away, rather than Stony Brook's itself.) I can envision this being an inconvenience for the thousands of students who live on the campus who likely don't have a car.

Closed: Boston, MA: Boston University Station post office
Also located in the student center, I wasn't comfortable parking within a half mile of this dense campus. Ah, Boston. But I did find this location before it was discontinued early last year as part of the SBOC study. The post office closed during the summer; its clerks were borrowed from nearby Kenmore Station. That location, the closest to the former site, is a 15-minute walk away from the student center, though many locations on campus are closer to Kenmore than to the former B.U. Station.

Two other college locations in the Boston downtown vicinity are presently in jeopardy: MIT Station and Boston College Station (the latter which I've not yet visited). These are huge campuses. Neither closure would be a good idea.

In jeopardy: Cambridge, MA: MIT Station post office

As you can see, given the old brass mailboxes, MIT's post office has been at this site for a very long time. In fact, this location's postmark was one of the first my father every obtained back in 1961! There were six customers at the office when I visited in late 2010.

I detailed a closed CPU at Northern Kentucky University in this entry, and two college POs -- one endangered, one already closed, in Providence, RI here.

In jeopardy: Wellesley, MA: Babson Park Station post office

Another self-contained campus; nearest post office, while 'just' 1.3 miles away, cannot safely be accessed without a car.

In the future I'll try to cover an interesting instance: Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, which featured five CPUs on five different campuses throughout the area. Two of the five have closed.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Instead of Prescribing Sound Policy, The Times Plays Parrot and Discovers VPOs

The New York Times should know what it's like to be seen as an institution in decline, considered by many to be a dinosaur in a modern age (and destined for extinction). There are many parallels that can be drawn to The New York Times's recent past and USPS's present. Its core business model, its bread and butter – circulation and advertising – has been declining steadily for years. The thing is, whereas the newspaper has applied its core values toward new business models that have rejuvenated the organization and increased its revenues over the past year, its recent editorial declarations vis-à-vis USPS run counter to everything the newspaper has supposedly learned. What The Times has recently advocated is effectively USPS's continued hurtle toward obsolescence.

Here's a recent Editorial by the Times to which I'm specifically referring: March 1, 2012. It could've been written word for word by Mr. Donahoe's secretary himself. (Replies by the National Association of Letter Carriers and the Direct Marketing Association were published one week later, with the former stating some common sense and the latter agreeing with the editorial in pursuit of its own interests.)

Over much of the last decade The Times floundered, but it didn't succumb to its new competitive environment; rather, it staked out its claim in the digital landscape. Postmaster General Donahoe calls himself USPS's CEO because he thinks of USPS as more of a business than a service. Good businessmen don't throw up their hands and declare societal defeat. Rather, they adapt their business models by providing new services to maintain their organizations' relevance in changing societal landscapes. (It also helps to get their billions in pension overpayments back from Congress, but that's another story.) Consider: Netflix was named in anticipation of its original DVDs-by-mail business model's evolution.

Allow me to provide a quote from The Times's 2011 annual report: "... [I]f our cost-control strategy is not managed properly, such efforts may affect the quality of our products and our ability to generate future revenue." So The Times was smart about it, and didn't compromise its core values – namely, maintaining its legion of news journalists, even though cutting its reporting staff would have made for easy cost reductions. That is, Times executives insisted on maintaining the publication's relevance to society through (hopefully) top-notch journalism. Now that retained network of reporters is producing material that the paper is extracting new revenues from by virtue of its new online business models. Perhaps USPS could learn from this? (I always thought that was called "If business is down, maintain your core values and leverage your existing infrastructure toward the provision of additional services for increased revenues." But I digress.)

That all said, it is supremely disappointing that The Grey Lady has offered little constructive analysis of the situation that USPS is in; instead its Editorials and the reporter whose work follows make the paper come across as a mouthpiece for USPS Corporate Communications.

The following is in response to a piece that ran today, heralding the advent of the cheap facsimile of a post office known as the Village Post Office or VPO, also known as "Hey, it's better than having absolutely nothing at all in your town, isn't it?" (Or, alternatively, Glorified Stamp Sales Locations. By no means are VPOs deserving of the title "post office".)

Here's a link to The Times's drivel regarding Village Post Offices. This reporter appears to have done nothing beyond expressing USPS's corporate stances. He quoted four people: the man who runs a new postal-esque operation; a USPS Corporate spokeswoman; the Postmaster General; and a Senator whose views generally parallel the PMG's. That's not good journalism practice. Let's see how many misleading or otherwise non-insightful statements we can find, and let's set the record straight... or at least express alternative views.

I quote:
The Postal Service has long allowed retailers to sell postage. But now it is arranging to provide some basic mailing services [1] in stores in rural areas like Brant, Mich., a town of just over 2,000 [2] about 30 miles southwest of Saginaw.
[1]: If, by "basic mailing services" you mean "having Priority Flat-Rate boxes on-hand, and absolutely not one thing more", then this statement is accurate. [My friend Kelvin presents an interesting comment below this post, incidentally.]
[2]: No town of 2,000 people should be without a U.S. Post Office. Though that figure entails 40 square miles of land. Satellite views show "downtown" Brant's appearing more like a crossroads... That population figure is extremely misleading; absolutely no physical town of that size can be adequately serviced by such an alternative access location. That readers could be led to make such invalid inferences given the information in the article is irresponsible journalism.
The post office there closed last year because it did not have a postmaster [3] and another post office was nearby [4].
[3]: USPS could assign a Postmaster anywhere it pleases. They elected not to fill the job. That's no excuse.
[4]: What editor approved the term 'nearby'? Even in USPS's own judgment there is not a post office 'nearby'. In calling for the dismissal of the PRC appeal regarding the closure of the Alplaus, NY, CPO (page 6), 'nearby' appears to constitute a postal site within five miles: "[f]ormer customers of the Alplaus CPO may obtain postal services ... [at] other alternate access options located within 5 miles of the Alplaus CPO." Let's see how many locations are "nearby" Brant:

Precisely none. And as the car drives, it's 6.5 miles to that post office. That image comes courtesy USPS's proprietary postal locator.
Last October, the Postal Service contracted out services to Nixon's Grocery, a store known primarily for its produce and fresh meats. Although it does not provide the full range of mailing services [5], residents can mail letters [6], buy stamps [7] and send packages [8]. There are also 20 post office boxes for rent [9].
[5]: It does not provide ANY mailing services. There's no delivery confirmation, there's no certified mail, there's no weighing of packages, there's no insurance available, there are no money orders, there's no...
[6]: USPS put a collection box out front. They can do that anywhere. This has nothing to do with the VPO.
[7]: They can buy exactly one type of Forever stamp. If you want Owney the Postal Dog, International Rate stamps, some $5.15 Priority Mail stamps for all those Flat-Rate boxes you'll be sending, or one-cent makeup rate stamps for your old 44s, you're out of luck.
[8]: You can't send a package unless it's inside a prepaid Flat-Rate box. You can't send a package Parcel Post, Media Mail, or Express; you can't use your own box.
[9]: How many more P.O. boxes were in service before the closure? (How much revenue did USPS give up when people turned to supplying their own mailboxes for rural delivery?)
The store’s owner, Gary Nixon, said he received about $500 a year [10] from the Postal Service for the setup.
[10]: This figure is not representative of VPO contracts to date. Courtesy a Freedom of Information Act request filed by a friend in Chicago, Going Postal has learned that the average VPO contract costs USPS $3,350 per year [median: $2,950]. The largest contract is $9,200 in "nearby" Glenn, Michigan (137 miles away).

If you're curious, here's the entire set of numbers: $9200, 5000, 3900, 2950, 2800, 2000, 3600, 500, 250. Still cheaper than a Postmaster's salary, to be sure, but you get what you pay for. Remember, these folks can only sell Forever stamps.
"We didn't do it for the money," Mr. Nixon said. "It's a service for our customers. People really appreciate it. [11]"
[11]: I respect and commend Mr. Nixon's efforts in offering to serve his community as best he can. But do you know what his customers might appreciate even more? A real post office. USPS could've at least offered the community a CPO. What Mr. Nixon is really saying is that the residents of his town want their real post office, yet USPS is refusing to provide it for the community. In its stead he's basically doing volunteer work on behalf of USPS for $1.50 a day, because the town was given no other option.

The village post office is one of the many ways the Postal Service is seeking to cut cost as revenue declines. The agency said it could not tell how much it would save by setting up shop in small groceries and hardware stores, but it did say it expects to save $200 million annually by closing branches [12].
[12]: That's just a line straight from the top. On the one hand, we have 10% of the postal network, representing every community in America. On the other hand we have the supposed whopping savings of 0.3% of total operating costs. Even if USPS momentarily realizes $200 million per year in direct costs, how much is it losing in (a) damage to organizational reputation; (b) revenue from those who would rather not head to the next available post office; or (c) revenue from those who would rather not wait in the now-more crowded neighboring operations? Also, "branch" was not the proper term to be used in that context.
Sue Brennan, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service, calls the arrangements with stores a win-win for local communities and the service. [13]
[13]: Why, it's almost as though the closure of the post office is really a blessing in disguise for the community! As opposed to, say, a detriment to business districts, a competitive disadvantage for communities that can no longer sport this fundamental service, and a drain on local economies: here. (See "Economic Development Effects of Losing a Post Office", page 21-22. The whole document's a pretty good read.)
"We want to have a presence in these communities, but we simply can’t continue to do what we are doing," Ms. Brennan said. "These village post offices saves [sic] us money and still provides needed services in the communities [14]."
[14]: USPS could have at least provided a reasonable facsimile for a post office by way of a CPO. By contrast VPOs do not provide all needed postal services to communities. One wonders if this reporter headed over to the "nearby" Saint Charles post office to ask how many Brant residents have walked in with their shipments, exasperated that their new and improved local "post office" wouldn't let them ship a package using their own box. (Noting, of course, that Mr. Nixon, surely disappointed that he couldn't help his residents in these instances, told them that they had to head to the nearest real post office to handle their transaction.)
Senator Thomas R. Carper, Democrat of Delaware, said the Postal Service should consider using major retailers like Walmart [15].
[15]: Because Walmart employees are most assuredly highly trained in the postal arts, and will certainly offer you the same care as the local Postmaster they're replacing.
"Any savings we can get helps us move toward financial stability," Ms. Brennan said [16].
[16] Four words: Your own market survey. If you have not read this, please do so.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Atlanta on My Mind

Back during the summer of '09 I enjoyed a couple of days in Atlanta: sampling 40 different flavors of soda at the World of Coca-Cola (at which I never realized just how much fun paying $15 to have advertising shoved in your face can be); watching Bobby Cox getting ejected at a Braves game at Turner Field; visiting the sublime Martin Luther King National Historic Site... oh, and visiting a bunch of post offices. I'm guessing you probably already knew that part.

Atlanta Main Post Office
Located near Hartsfield International, this modern building -- which also serves as the Atlanta P&DC -- was fun:

(Here's Google's Street View take on it:)

Two different postmarks, one with the four 'killer bars' on it, nice clerks. USPS's Owned Facilities Report states that the land has been owned since 1980, though I don't know when the building itself was built.

A couple of stations downtown are under RAOI study for closure, including Phoenix Station, which had a warped-from-overuse but perfectly legible ovoid postmark. I love finds like that.

Atlanta, GA: Phoenix Station post office

Also on the possible chopping block is this basement office in the Peachtree Center. The supervisor maintained a postmark different from those of his clerks, and it actually resembled a peach! It was totally awesome.

Atlanta, GA: Peachtree Center Station post office

The CNN Center, home to the world's longest "freestanding" escalator, is also home to a post office that could easily become an Apple Store if closed, because two of its sides are all plate glass. This office was on the SBOC closure study back in 2009, but escaped discontinuance. Apparently it makes more than $600,000 a year since it wasn't placed on RAOI. And Sheryl(?), if you're reading this, I still remember you as an incredibly friendly and upbeat clerk. Thank you.

Atlanta, GA: CNN Center Station post office

Here are a few other locations:
Atlanta, GA: Georgia State University CPU

Atlanta, GA: Dunwoody Branch post office

Located in a nice part of town.

This contract unit was short-lived and discontinued soon after I visited it. I believe I'm the only postmark collector ever to have obtained a cancel from it.

Marietta, GA: Windy Hill Square CPU

Sunday, March 4, 2012

More Stories from the CPU Hit List

(Edit 3/5/11 5:35 P.M.: As of this time there appear to be at least modest political efforts toward retaining the remainder of these 20 locations, most of which are set to close at the end of this month. Report from Temple, Texas. Why these Congressmen can't step up for the rest of the postal system, who knows?)

A couple of months ago Going Postal brought you the story of the small-town post office [CPO] in Alplaus, NY -- one of 20 contract offices with P.O. Boxes arbitrarily called out to be closed as part of a labor contract between USPS and the APWU that purports to give labor back to union employees but in reality serves no one's interests; particularly not those residents of the communities affected. I am all for giving official union clerks more work, but will shuttering these locations really create positions at neighboring post offices? And is it really worth terminating access to these communities? So: We have 20 low-cost contracted post offices, many of which are profitable, and they have been arbitrarily determined to be closed because they provide too much service -- namely, they supply P.O. Boxes. Let's take a look at some more locations being shuttered as part of this contract resolution.

Bridgeport, CT: Central Commons CPU

Whom is this closure helping?

20% of Bridgeport residents live below the poverty line, and the Central Commons CPU was a cost-effective way of providing service to a community that was visibly distressed when I visited back in 2009. Now I know I've said places are poor in the past, but let's see if we can back up this assertion with numbers.

A demographic analysis conducted by the author using ESRI's Business Analyst shows that of the 7,900 people living within 0.6 miles of this CPU (all of whom are closer to Central Commons than to any other post office), 20.3% resided in households with annual income of less than $15,000 in 2010. More than a third of households made less than $25,000 a year, and 30% had no vehicles available to them. This means that, while the next post office -- Noble Station -- is 1.2 miles away, that could entail an additional 24-minute walk for residents without cars.

Oh, did I mention that the neighboring Noble Station Post office is presently being studied for closure under RAOI? It's in a pretty handsome building, too.

Bridgeport, CT's Noble Station post office

The clerk at Central Commons sat behind a thick pane of bulletproof glass and wasn't sure about giving postmarks to a collector, but he came around when I showed him the POM regulations.

The CPU closed December 31, 2011.

Mill Hall, PA: Salona CPO

Despite the fact that this location had been closed since last April -- before that contract even took effect -- this was a pleasant find. Not only do I generally love photogenic offices that lie in the side of someone's home, but this office still had its sign up, and it stated Salona Rural Station. CPOs were known as Rural Stations / Branches until the early 1970s. Obviously that location had been around for ages!

Let's have a closer look:

Residents of the small community now head up the road a couple of miles into larger Mill Hall.

Concord, NH: Boscawen CPO

A town of 4,000 is served by a long-time contractor who knows her community like the back of her brass-plated P.O. Boxes. Now, everyone has to drive four miles down to Concord's Penacook Station to conduct their postal business. (And speed limits in New Hampshire tend to be a bit low!)

I visited Boscawen at the beginning of 2010 and re-visited it during its last week this year. Contractor Laura Lane had a fantastic assortment of stamps and I purchased $150 worth from her over my two visits. She's one of the nicest women you would ever care to meet. The office made some money, too. In terms of costs, "Boscawen's contract station costs the Postal Service less than $8,500 annually because the town provides and maintains the building free of charge" (Concord Monitor).

Boscawen P.O. Boxes

Here's the full CM article.

Again, it appears that many of the locals affected are those who can least afford the change: "Our recent census data indicates that about 48 percent of the town's population of just under 4,000 live at or below the poverty level," she wrote. "We have 12 mobile home parks, most of them consisting of outdated trailers from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s."

Again, who's being helped by this closure? The CPO closed January 6, 2012 -- same as Alplaus.

The Better Letter CPU in Brooklyn, NY -- which is used to divert traffic from the highly trafficked Williamsburg Station post office -- was written about here. Ironically, when I visited that station back in 2010, there were flyers directing people to visit the CPU fr quicker service!

A website called the Confederation of Postal Contractors -- an informal consortium of the "CPU 20" -- can be found here.