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The US Post Office has it all wrong!

August 5, 2009

Three or four times a year, I have to go to my local post office to send a registered letter or collect a package. Joe the Grump is always there, waiting for me, anxious to point out the mistake I made filling in my form and eager to send me back to the end of the line.

In my few moments of wounded altruism, I can even understand why he’s angry. The United States Postal Service (USPS) has just announced it is considering closing 700 branches to stem its losses ($7 B this fiscal year). The New York Times reports that mail dropped by 9.5 billion pieces last year and may drop another 28 billion pieces this year (total volume is 203 billion pieces). So, USPS management is shutting down physical infrastructure and laying off people. It may not be good news for Joe the Grump, but at long last, the postal administration appears to be behaving like a business. What’s wrong with that?

Plenty, actually. In fact, the USPS is squandering a historic opportunity. The current “lights out” strategy misses out on the fact that owning a physical space staffed with local people in the center of every city, town or village in America is a huge asset, at a time where local community activities are making a come-back. Local post offices could be the heart of those local communities. The first wave of community activity was Internet-based, relying on eBay, MySpace, Facebook and YouTube. A second generation of communities is emerging, based on live people meeting in physical spaces at the local level. Food is becoming local. So is politics. Working far from home is so 20th century. Mutualism is back in. Economies of scale are out. So is globalism. Proximity is the new cool. Who could be better placed to orchestrate this human mobilization than the local post office?

We make fun of postal employees because we care about them. In truth, we cherish our (sometimes) friendly mail man, and like the notion of a local business staffed by local people who live among us (even you, Joe). The bank employee or the grocery store clerk rotates every two years, but the teller employee at the post office will be there forever. Greed will not overtake him. Service will remain affordable. Most of the time (when the line is not too long), we love the post office’s egalitarian approach to serving rich and poor citizens alike. In many countries, the post office is the place of last refuge for immigrants and older people. Perhaps post offices represent the socialistic edge of our ruthlessly capitalistic conscience.

If you’re interested in reading a bit more, here’s my thought on how this might actually work. The post office could become a physical place of exchange for goods and services, more like eBay or a farmer’s market. Local markets are notoriously inefficient, and the post office could orchestrate supply and demand for baby-sitting, cleaning and math tutoring services. Many businesses are too small to afford a physical space (local farmers, businesses run from home), but could use the building or parking lot of these post offices on week-ends. Larger, out-of-town companies are always looking for affordable points of distribution to deliver goods to local markets, or cost-effective gathering points for mobile phone and computer repair services, for example. But you have to go look for them.

The unleashing of such community forces would have to come from employees of local post offices. USPS’ top management would have no clue about local markets, but local post office employees would know which local suppliers they should help export to other parts of the country, or what products could profitably be imported and sold locally. Each post office would become a node in a country-wide marketplace where postal employees act as enablers of local commerce, rather than frustrated bureaucrats in a dying business.

This might even bring a smile on the face of Joe the Grump.

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