Article published Aug 10, 2010

Mail boxes are slowly disappearing

By MICHAEL P. MAYKO. Connecticut Post

Slowly they are going the way of public pay phones, the Main Street cigar store and vinyl records.

And soon another piece of Americana — the royal blue U.S. Postal Service collection box first appearing on our nation’s streets in 1850 — may be gone.

Chalk it up to technology, says Henry Schissler, an associate professor of sociology at Housatonic Community College.

Or the increasing costs of both cards and stamps, says Edward Deak, an economics professor at Fairfield University.

Or another of the Postal Service’s lifeline strategies, like reducing hours, cutting jobs and raising rates, to save a business sinking in debt.

Last week, the U.S. Postal Service reported $3.5 billion in operating loses for the third quarter ending June 30. Don’t be surprised, the Postal Service says, if it ends the fiscal year $7 billion in the red.

They attribute it to the costs of funding retirees’ benefits, worker compensation claims and most importantly, a continuing drop in mail volume.

“What they really need to do is figure out how to be more productive,” said Deak. “That could mean shrinking themselves by reducing not only the number of employees, but the days and times it delivers. Eliminating Saturday deliveries is a real possibility.”

One thing they’ve already done is ask the Postal Regulatory Commission to increase by two cents the cost of first class mail and postcards, bringing those to 46 and 28 cents respectively on Jan. 2. Increased rates for mailing parcels and periodicals also are sought. A decision is expected in October.

Meanwhile, the 213 billion pieces of mail the U.S. Postal Service handled in 2006 dropped to 177 billion last year.

And the 345,000 collection boxes standing on the nation’s streets in 2005 just waiting for you to pull down the drawer and drop your letters inside?

That number has been whittled in half.

By example, Bridgeport, Conn., lost 51 as of early this year.

Soon the corner box, once attached to utility poles and checked every hour, may go the route of those long-gone huge olive green relay boxes where mail was placed for the letter carrier’s route.

Relay boxes began disappearing in the 1970s and 1980s when the Postal Service determined it was more economical and more mail could be stored in vehicles. What they didn’t determine is that gas for those vehicles would reach nearly $3 a gallon in the new millennium.

“This is not unique to greater Bridgeport or even Connecticut,” said Maureen Marion, a U.S. Postal Service spokesperson, when asked about disappearing collection boxes. “It’s a national movement and part of it has a lot to do with how people use stamped mail.”

Stamped mail, remember that?

Bills once sent by mail are often paid these days, without a check or a stamp, online. Cards, once handwritten and sent to arrive on a birthday or holiday, have given way to singing E-cards transmitted electronically by computer over the Internet. Organizations no longer pay 28 cents for a postcard to send out meeting notices. Instead they are sent free via e-mail.

In classes he teaches at Housatonic Community College, Schissler intertwines daily with the 20-something year olds who make up what he calls “the paperless Generation Y.”

He watches them organize, categorize and determine their daily schedules and lives on their computers, cell phones and handheld wireless gaming systems — all thanks to the Internet.

“Nice things like mailing someone a greeting card or a letter is a bizarre happening to them,” he said. “I don’t think these kids have stepped into a post office in years.”

Business buys into that, the professor said.

“You must get the letters from companies urging you to go green and switch your bills, statements or notices to e-mail,” Schissler said.

“I’m not so sure I buy the claim that they are as concerned about the environment as they are about saving a fortune on mailing costs.”

But Marion said it’s not just Generation Y that is causing the corner collection box to disappear, it’s the demands of society.

People who once walked to the corner to mail their letters are now leaving them in their home mailbox or at the mail tray at work for the letter carrier to collect. Others wait until they go shopping, to drop a letter in the box outside their supermarket.

Marion said the test for keeping a collection box in its current location is that an average of 25 pieces of mail, which represents a letter carrier’s handful, be deposited inside every day.

If that doesn’t happen over a month-long period, the box is ticketed for change.

So boxes are moved to places like strip malls, schools and new developments where foot traffic might be heavier. Some are placed outside a post office reducing unnecessary foot traffic. Still others are brought inside and kept as replacement boxes for those battered by weather, vandals and age.

“It’s a reflection of a strategic use of our resources,” Marion said.

With the growing deficit, decreasing use and increasing cost, is the future dimming for the U.S. Postal Service?

Both Marion and Deak say no.

“We don’t expect young people to increase their letter-writing habits, but we are looking at new developments,” she said.

One simple thing she said is selling pre-stamped greeting cards.

One that Deak suggests is zone pricing first-class mail like the Postal Service already does for packages. This means the farther you send a letter the more it will cost.

“Right now I could send a letter to Fargo, N.D. for the same price it costs me to send one to my next door neighbor,” he said.

But whatever the future holds, Deak said he has “absolutely no doubt that the U.S. Postal Service will exist 50 years from now. Sending something by FedEx or UPS is more expensive.”

Marion agrees.

“There’s always going to be a Postal Service,” the company spokesperson said. “I don’t believe private courier services will be able to meet the needs of society.”