The Package Is (Still) In The Mail–Distressing Delivery Delays

What’s in your mailbox? A better question might be what’s NOT in your mailbox. Mine has been annoyingly empty on several occasions recently. What’s up? The crushing volume of deliveries to be made during the holiday season has resulted in a behemoth backlog.

Santa delivered Christmas presents in a timely fashion, but U.S.P.S. is still working on getting an unprecedented volume of such packages to their intended destination. Despite the desire for the “swift completion of their appointed rounds” by mail carriers, that goal was unattainable in 2020 continuing on in to 2021. Don’t blame snow or rain or heat or gloom of night for the delays. Let’s unmask (pun intended) the culprit. It’s COVID-19 and the consequences thereof.

The coronavirus achieved more than simply infecting millions and killing thousands here in the United States during 2020. It altered our lives and how we carried out regular tasks and celebrated cherished holidays. The crafty coronavirus even toyed with the postal service and took it for a roller coaster ride. The strategy was the classic good news/bad news scenario. The good news was that the U.S.P.S., which has seen steep declines in volume over the past few years, saw an unprecedented surge in business; the bad news was that this astronomical volume was a tidal wave which swept U.S.P.S. underwater unable to keep pace with the delivery demands. Glub! Glub!

The pandemic created a perfect storm which has paralyzed the postal service. Quarantines and illness among the 644,000 postal employees caused a shortage of workers. According to the American Postal Workers Union, nearly 19,000 U.S.P.S. workers were in quarantine at the end of 2020. And, of course, the end of the year (think Christmas) is a bad time to be short on workers when it’s the busiest delivery time annually.

As the availability of postal employees went down, the demand for deliveries skyrocketed. Because of health concerns, people opted not to personally deliver packages in their local area. It’s safer to mail it, they concluded. Because of health concerns, people thought it best not to travel to spend the holidays with family back home. We’ll have to mail their gifts to them instead, they concluded. Because of health concerns, people shied away from going to malls and other shopping venues where public contact was required. Let’s buy it online and have it shipped, they concluded. Bottom line? Everything had to be delivered. Hear that sound? It’s the tidal wave crashing over the head of U.S.P.S.

The role e-commerce played in the Christmas crush was huge. On Cyber Monday alone online shopping totaled $34.4 billion, an increase of 20% from 2019. During November and December 2020, e-commerce sales were up 33% from the previous year. While many online retailers utilize private delivery services such as UPS and FedEx, those services imposed deadlines for receipt of items for Christmas delivery. Senders who missed the deadline had no choice but to turn to U.S.P.S. to get massive amounts of their items delivered. And many of us, me included, are still waiting for our packages. And waiting. And waiting.

Where are these endlessly “in transit” packages? Widely circulated on the internet are pictures of U.S.P.S. processing and distribution centers across the country filled to overflowing with them. According to a December 28th news report, bays at the Cleveland Post Office were packed with boxes that had yet to be gone through. Due to the sea of incoming packages, trailers were obtained to hold them at annexes in the area. News articles contain stories of folks whose packages traveled to a center in New York and haven’t moved for weeks. I can see a package wanting to hang out in a center in Florida during the winter, but who wants to cool their heels (literally) in New York in December?

In addition to packages, the backlog has affected mail service as well. Letters, cards, and bills have been delayed also. No one ever likes to receive a bill, but it is even worse if the bill isn’t received until after its due date. A postal worker in a Philadelphia postal plant reported that one cannot even move in the building because so much mail is stacked there. So, the check you’re awaiting is not in the mail, it’s in a stack apparently.

Delivery delays are an issue despite the postal service having hired 50,000 seasonal workers in anticipation of increased holiday business. U.S.P.S. reported to Congress that first class mail was delivered on time only 78.9% of the time during the week of November 28th. This figure was far below the service’s goal of 96% on time delivery. To deal with the historic backlog, Sunday deliveries were expanded in some cities with high volume, and employees were required to work a great deal of overtime. With extended work schedules, some postal carriers are now literally working in the gloom of night.

But don’t be too hard on the U.S.P.S. They aren’t the only mail service suffering from delivery delays. Across the pond, the U.K.’s Royal Mail is behind on deliveries as well due to “exceptionally high volumes of post.” A reported online shift to shopping due to the pandemic means that 200 million more parcels were in their post this year. I say, old chap, that’s a lot!

As frustrating as not receiving a gift or an order in a timely fashion is, if that’s the biggest complaint you can make right now, be thankful. How many people did not live to see Christmas due to COVID-19? How many individuals lost their jobs due to the coronavirus and couldn’t afford to buy Christmas gifts to be delivered? Delayed delivery of a package simply means postponed enjoyment; in the context of a pandemic, its better late than never.

Just WONDER-ing:

Have you experienced delay in receipt of mail or packages in the past few weeks? Did you purchase anything online over the holidays to avoid going out publicly to shop? At what point does a delay during peak shipping times become unacceptable?

Sniffing Out The Story On Stamps

If you go to the post office next month, you may not smell a rat, but you might smell a popsicle.  No, USPS has not resorted to selling frozen goodies to raise money for its budget; however, it will unveil Frozen Treats Forever Stamps on June 20th, one day before the first day of summer.  And these aren’t just any forever stamps.  They are scratch and sniff stamps!

What postal customer could resist buying whimsical stamps with images of fruit bars and ice cream pops?  Who wouldn’t want to plop down fifty cents to  be able to affix a kiwi, watermelon, blueberry or strawberry fruit bar stamp on the envelope containing your mortgage payment?  Why, I’ll bet there will be lines out the door to snap up these “cool” stamps.  You scream, I scream, we all scream for ice cream stamps. NOT!

USPS may not have thought of the many issues with scratch and sniff stamps.  For example, who gets to do the scratching and sniffing?  If it’s the recipient of the letter, then the purchaser has no way of confirming he is getting what he paid for.  Sure, the stamp depicts a kiwi fruit bar, but does it SMELL like a kiwi?  And must the sender be PC and select an appropriate flavor for the recipient?  Should one send Aunt Bertha a birthday card bearing a  strawberry fruit bar stamp if she’s allergic to strawberries?  What if Grandpa doesn’t like chocolate ice cream?  Should he be forced to open a letter with a chocolate ice cream pop stamp blatantly affixed to the envelope?

Even more concerning is how long the smell will last. The stamp is advertised as a FOREVER stamp.  This leads the purchaser to believe that the stamp’s smell should last forever.  Is this false and misleading advertising?  And what remedy is there should the stamp’s smell fade away before the envelope’s addressee receives the stamped correspondence?

The post office would have to provide tester stamps for potential purchasers.  I mean who buys body spray or perfume without being offered a sniff sample from a tester?  Shouldn’t stamps with a smell receive the same treatment?  As a savvy stamp buyer, I’d say yes.

Producing scratch and sniff stamps isn’t the first time that USPS had used technology to tantalize the consumer.  In June 2017 Total Solar Eclipse stamps were released which utilized temperature sensitive ink to change the image on the stamp.  The stamp started off with an eclipse image, but put your hot little finger on it and the image changed to a full moon.  Wow!  How many more letters I would have written had I known about these scientific show stamps?  In actuality?  None.

Why this focus on stamps rather than timely and accurate delivery you might ask?  Good question!  Basically, USPS receives no tax dollars for operating expenses; it relies solely on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations.  Thus, if it can sell more stamps, then it has more income.  Every year USPS commissions artists, illustrator and designers to develop twenty-five different stamps.  The rationale apparently is that new stamps will equate to more stamp purchases.

For the average John Doe, what is pictured on a stamp likely makes little difference.  Now, if it is Jane Doe, she might desire LOVE stamps to place on wedding invitations, but otherwise she probably could not care less about the design on the stamps.  Both John and Jane might want Christmas themed stamps for Christmas cards.  However, the same number of Christmas cards and wedding invitations will be sent regardless of what stamp design is utilized.  It does not seem that a design would significantly increase stamp sales.

The story might be different for a stamp collector.  A philatelist, who views stamps as miniature works of art, wants to add to his collection and might snap up newly issued images to fill his stamp albums.  (This desire makes the term PHILatelist apropos.)  There are an estimated 5 million people in the U.S. who collect stamps with regularity according to Linn’s Stamp News, one of the preeminent stamp authorities.  But most of these individuals are not serious collectors, so USPS cannot count on all stamp collectors to purchase each new stamp.

USPS may be trying to cash in on niche markets.  The just released Sally Ride forever stamp might capture the attention of postal customers who are aviators or scientists.  The Mister Rogers forever stamp released back in March might have a nostalgic appeal to older Americans who might actually still write letters and pay their bills via snail mail.

And speaking of snail mail, perhaps issuing snail stamps might be a humorous touch for stamps USPS could sell.  Wonder if Cuba, which has issued more than twenty stamps featuring snails, has made a mint from gastropod stamps.  I am fine with snails being pictured on a stamp as long as the speed of delivery is not commensurate with the speed at which a snail moves.  Let’s just make sure that any snail stamps issued are not of the scratch and sniff variety.

Scratch and sniff stamps leave me scratching my head.  The scratch and sniff feature is a mere bell and whistle which provides little value and not much entertainment to the scratcher/sniffer.  In my opinion, USPS needs to scratch below the surface of its financial woes and focus on improving service instead of offering gimmicks.  Neither rain nor snow nor dark of night should deter USPS from providing efficient service as opposed to envelope embellishment.

Just WONDER-ing:  Thumbs up or thumbs down on scratch and sniff stamps? Would a new stamp design or feature spur you to buy more stamps?  What stamp design or feature would you like to see?