With holiday card sending way down, is the Post Office the next to crash?

Remember when the Post Office started coming out with self-stick stamps? The novelty was thrilling. No longer did we have to lick them! It felt like we were in a golden age. For a while there, sending stuff felt fresh.

In 2008, though, the United States Postal Service tried out something new that seemed to scare people away: Raising the price of postage again. Never mind that now we've got the "Forever Stamp," which essentially encourages us to hedge the price of postage. The way it played out, people simply reached the tipping point.

Last year, the Postal Service delivered some 20 billion pieces of mail between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year, the figure was more like 19 billion. As the Miami Herald put it, that's three fewer pieces of mail for every American. Bad news for the USPS, which is already $1 billion in the hole.

"The mail reflects our economy," said a U.S. Postal Service spokesman. "The economy has been down all year."

Right. And also wrong. The mail mavens of the Postal Service are kidding themselves if they think the drop-off is just about the economy. It's not just the economy that has changed. It's the way we live. E-mail is no longer a novelty, just as self-stick stamps are no longer a novelty. Whereas five years ago, you might scoff at a friend who only sent e-mail cards as a cheapskate, e-mail has matured into an acceptable way to send heartfelt greetings.

This month, my in-box has been swamped with notes from people who used to send cards through the mail to me. Respectable people. Grandmothers. The convenience is contagious. For the past two years, the only people who received paper holiday cards from me were ones who sent me one first. If they're the type of person that wants a paper card, then a paper card they'll get. But I'm fine with typing out my love--or even with text-messaging it.

These days, even the classiest businesses rely on digital holiday greetings. Take the Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau--surely a bastion of high manners if ever there was one.

It's in the face of this cultural shift that the Postal Service--duh!--raised its price again this year. So unsurprisingly, it now has to deal with a 5% drop in the usage of its product. Then the USPS tried to combat the shortfall by telling clerks to try to trick customers into paying for more expensive mailing options by failing to mention when a cheaper one is available. Double duh--we already hate going to the post office, but now we have to cross-examine the clerks to get the best deal, too?

The decline of snail mail is only going to accelerate. As the Herald points out, Hallmark cards shut down three plants and laid off 335 workers earlier this year. But unlike the car manufacturers or a retail brand, America can't shrug off the failure of the postal service. The feds would simply have to take it fully on board.

Let's hope the suits at the USPS can be postmasters of their own domain, and don't let the @ sign drain the Service so much that it becomes yet another drag on the federal budget. We have a stack of Forever Stamps we actually want to last forever.
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