Postal Service tries to rebound from 9/11

USPS deliveries dropped at end of '01, but recession may be the biggest culprit.

It's not your usual advertisement. Carly Simon's voice sings as photos flash on the screen. The music swells, the still pictures change to video, and it becomes apparent that all the inspiration is directed at ... the Postal Service.

Then a slightly altered version of the USPS creed appears. Neither "snow, nor rain ... nor a nation challenged, will stay us from the swift completion of our appointed rounds. Ever."

A few people in this city might disagree with that assessment - and point to recently delivered Christmas cards to prove it. But providing you don't hit the mute button, there's no ignoring the ad's power, or its point: In paying tribute to everyday heroes after Sept. 11, don't forget your letter carriers. They may not rush into burning buildings, but they lost people to terrorism, too, and they continue to work.

Indeed, the US Postal Service is in need of a morale boost. After the destruction of a post office in the World Trade Center and an autumn full of anthrax attacks, the USPS's mail volume dropped by almost 3 billion pieces between September and November - a 5.5 percent decrease, compared with the same period the previous year. In total, the postal service had a net loss of $1.7 billion in its last fiscal year.

Such numbers have some citizens wondering what the role of their neighborhood mail carrier has in post-September America. For the past few years, techno buffs have been saying the e-revolution will eventually push the Postal Service into, if not extinction, then at least retrenchment. Between e-mail, e-payments, cellphones, and cheap long-distance rates, times are changing.

But USPS representatives say the story behind the recent decline in postal use needs to take other factors into account - especially America's overall financial state. With this fuller picture, reports of the agency's impending demise appear to be off the mark.

Too slow to send a letter

It is easy to look at Sept. 11 as a watershed day for the USPS. As events broke, Americans did what humans do in times of crisis: They communicated - and stamps weren't involved.

AT&T, which usually handles 2 million long-distance calls every five minutes during the business day, saw those numbers double to 4 million from the time of the initial plane crash until about 12:30 p.m. In total that day, AT&T handled 431 million long-distance calls, breaking the previous record by more than 100 million.

But the spike was just that - a spike. After the first three days of the crisis, things were back to where they had been, says Dave Johnson, a spokesman for AT&T. "I think once people knew their relatives and friends were OK, they stopped calling and watched the TV," he says. Phone traffic over the holidays was essentially where the company expected it to be - pre-Sept. 11.

E-mails and instant messages also went crazy the day of the attacks, according to America On-line's estimation. And the high volume has continued: For the month of October, AOL saw the number of e-mails rise to 310 million, almost double from 157 million in October 2000.

But those figures are part of a longer-term trend: The 2000 figure, in fact, was more than the double the number from October 1999 (85 million).

"We see big increases every year," says AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham.

Some of the postal service's business may have also found its way to FedEx, which saw its volume on the heaviest day of the Christmas season increase by 200,000 over figures for 2000.

But none of this accounts for the whole change. In the end, says Postal Service's Mark Saunders, the USPS has been more a victim of recession than terrorism. "We don't feel this was a story of not trusting the mail," he says.

Indeed, Jerry Cerasale of the Direct Marketing Association says DMA has noticed a big change in how companies have been doing business since the onset of the recession. Of the 2.8 billion-piece drop in mail volume, 2.2 billion has come in standard mail - the class that includes advertising and catalogs.

Fewer businesses are soliciting new customers with mail campaigns, and they're cutting costs by cutting mailings. These measures may have seemed especially prudent as some companies conclude that mail-marketing can't deliver its desired results. "The fact is companies have found that people hate junk e-mail and they don't read it," Mr. Cerasale says.

"The real test comes when we all get broadband connections to the Web," he adds. "Right now it just takes too long to go through a catalog online."

When things could look up

Of course, it will likely be a while before most of the nation has a broadband connection. So for the time being, at least, the USPS's volume stands a chance of rebounding when the economy starts growing again.

But what about the USPS ad? Some people are taking notice.

"We also have an elite group of American heroes who now stand alone. The United States postal workers!" one reader wrote in the Bowling Green (Ky.) Daily. "There has been an increase in applications for police officers, firefighters, and military volunteers all over the country. But I haven't heard of a rush for employment at the post office."

Apparently, even the best ad can do only so much.

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