Like other small business owners, I’ve learned to expect three things from the United States Postal Service:
- A 5-15 minute wait in line
- Useless tracking information, and a complete lack of help when packages do get lost (about 1 in every 500!)
- Incompetence of approximately half of all postal employees (figure worsens when handed international packages…)
Even customers know better than to expect tracking information for USPS First Class and Priority Mail packages—this luxury only comes from UPS, FedEx, etc. The USPS cannot afford to replace their practically useless Delivery Confirmation service with an actual tracking system. Nor do they have the resources to develop an API that would allow businesses to automate shipments (like UPS/FedEx). There’s a single reason I stick with the USPS: Unmatched prices. However, the USPS is in financial trouble (and has been for years). Given the Great Recession, combined with ever increasing competition from alternative shipping carriers, I’d hoped that the USPS would finally step into the 21st Century, technologically. This has not been the case.
Last Monday, I stepped into a local post office and handed 6 postage-paid, domestic packages to the postal clerk. She looked over each, then stated, “These 5 cannot be shipped. They have the wrong date.”
As usual, I’d used PayPal’s Multi-Order Shipping tool to print out orders on Sunday evening. ‘The date is no problem,’ I said confidently. ‘I’ve been doing this for three years. The date is meaningless, but if you insist, I can mark out Sunday’s date and write in today’s date by hand.’ I picked up the pen on the counter and proceeded to change 6/6/10 to 6/7/10 on each of the rejected packages.
“Let me get the postmaster,” she replied.
The postmaster stepped up and had made up her mind before even looking at my packages. She handed me a clearly unofficial document which read:
“Accepting packages that have stale ship dates on them could affect our delivery scores. This information from usps.com explains the correct process. The same policy would be in place for other pcpostage labels such as paypal, stamps.com, endicia.com, etc.
You must mail your item on the date that you selected for your Click-N-Ship label; this is known as the Ship Date. An electronic record is generated on that date indicating that your mail piece has been mailed. Packages shipped with labels that have incorrect Ship Dates will be returned to the sender and will not be eligible for a refund. If you are unable to use the label, you should request a refund within ten (10) days of the printed label and create another label with the correct Ship Date.
Your online label can be used only as it has been printed, without any alterations. If you find an error in your label, print a new label with the correct information and request a refund. Any mail piece which has a manually altered online label will be returned.”
I argued for another minute before leaving. As I made my way out, the poor postal clerk quietly told me that it was a “new policy” of “cracking down on Click-N-Ship labels”. Technically, nothing had changed; USPS’s shipping requirements have always stated that packages must be shipped on the day for which they are printed. While PayPal’s Multi-Order shipping system allows selection of the “Mailing Date”, it is obvious that labels postmarked on Sunday cannot possibly be shipped until Monday. For the past three years, postal employees and postmasters have told me, assuredly, that this was not a problem. And it hadn’t been, until last week.
Outraged, I drove home and immediately Google’d the document. Nothing came up, so I called 1-800-ASK-USPS to get to the bottom of the issue. I was told that it was indeed a recent change, and that I was correct: USPS made NO ANNOUNCEMENT WHATSOEVER of their changed policy. Why not? Well, it isn’t a change—they are suddenly enforcing a rule that has always been in effect. The guy further stated, “I don’t like the change either, and they really should have made an announcement.”
The next day, I went to a different local post office. None of the clerks had seen the unofficial document (although they were aware of the new policy), so I asked to speak with their postmaster. This fellow was quite helpful; he furnished the following e-mail printout, dated April 28, 2010:
After a lengthy discussion with the postmaster, a self-described “postal nerd”, it was clear that the USPS is just trying to survive. They’re losing money, customers are displeased with Delivery Confirmation, and of course, USPS also gets blamed when some businesses print out labels several days before actually dropping them off. Thus, the USPS has decided to reject all packages with “stale ship dates” in effort to improve public opinion.
I have several problems with this:
- Up until April 28, 2010, the USPS didn’t care when I dropped off my packages. USPS should have made an official announcement. Factoring in labor, my business lost over $200 last week due to USPS’s failure to communicate. More disturbingly, my customers experienced a 1 day delay in shipping—we pride ourselves on same-day shipments.
- USPS knows that labels printed online are rarely shipped the day they are marked. Anyone who has checked the Delivery Confirmation number of a freshly prepared shipment has seen this blurb from usps.com’s tracking system:
Label/Receipt Number: #### #### #### #### #### ##
Status: Electronic Shipping Info Received
The U.S. Postal Service was electronically notified by the shipper on June ##, 2010 to expect your package for mailing. This does not indicate receipt by the USPS or the actual mailing date. Delivery status information will be provided if / when available. No further information is available for this item
This statement has served its job well enough for years. Does USPS really expect to increase customer satisfaction by suddenly refusing their packages?
- USPS is built upon the principle that postage is as good as currency. A 44 cent stamp is worth always 44 cents, regardless of the day or the year. Until recently, USPS had maintained this perspective for postage printed online: Labels printed for $2.09 on Sunday were perfectly valid no matter the calendar date. But this is apparently no longer true. On very rare occasion, traffic has prevented me from making my daily post office visit in time. When this happens, I’d toss the packages into the drop-box instead. Now, I can no longer use drop-boxes after hours! I must cancel and re-print the shipping labels, then explain to customers why they have just received a shipment cancellation and 2nd shipment notice. And my poor accountant! All in all, this could cost my small business thousands of dollars in labor.
- Historically, USPS’s instructions mandated that online labels be used “only as it has been printed, without any alterations” because the digital barcode tells the postal system where the package is headed. A computer will ignore handwritten address changes on a digital label. The computer does not care when the label was printed. It only cares where the package is going. Hence, the “Electronic Shipping Info Received” statement cited above. In other words, USPS has deceptively manipulated an old policy in attempt to combat financial losses. Way to go, USPS.
In conclusion, USPS has made another poor choice and will continue to lose money and business. If they really wished to improve customer satisfaction, they would take example from UPS and FedEx: Customers want fine, friendly service, and REAL tracking information. Then this whole issue would be a moot point, since it would be clear when a package was physically accepted by the post office. But alas, the USPS is a federal entity and is not bound to the same expectations as a capitalistic business…
Anyway, fellow users of PayPal.com/Stamps.com/Endicia.com/Click-N-Ship should be aware that USPS has begun looking at the printed date on internet shipping labels, so you better get it right.