Saturday, July 17, 2010

It's Not in the Mail

I confess I still get a rush when I see that the little yellow flag is up on the mailbox. A Pavlovian response to be sure, it means that there's something out there just waiting to be opened. Once that particular determination is made, I retrieve it and commence to sorting. If indeed I'm the one tasked with the responsibility, the stuff for my wife goes on the counter; if she beats me to it, she places mine on top of a filing cabinet in her office near the kitchen. Then when the absent party returns home, they peruse the stack, keep the wheat and throw away the chafe.

Lately, however, there's far less of a harvest to bring in, and even less worth consuming. Her haul usually consists of magazines and catalogs, as well as a smattering of professionally oriented organizational stuff related to her volunteer work. I get the balance: bills, statements and semi-official looking offers for additional credit cards, land in North Carolina and grass-fed steaks guaranteed to melt in my mouth.

The bottom line is that the mail ain't what it used to be. When we were kids, the postman was our connection to the outside world. Every day or so would bring a glossy magazine with pictures, or a few pages to add to an encyclopedia we were building in a three-ring binder to which my folks subscribed. Sale circulars and promotional flyers showed us the latest in toys and stuff, and letters, cards and pictures arrived from relatives and friends near and far. In an era of just three television stations... four if you counted PBS... the mail was a window looking outside of our little development.

Less than half a century later, most of that has migrated to the internet. You can sign up to get electronic statements for almost all your accounts, be it bills or summaries. Some payments still come as paper checks, but a growing number are direct deposited to your accounts. More and more sale and promotional notices are sent to your electronic inbox as opposed to the one outside, and circulation of every type of publication and periodical is way down. And with a few clicks you can get news, sports and pictures taken that day in Rome or Johannesburg or Tibet, not to mention revisit your high school class and see how much weight they've put on and hair they've taken off.

It's not just anecdotal. The Postal Service projects a decline of about 10 billion pieces of mail in each of the next two years, going from a high of 213 billion pieces of mail in 2006 to 170 billion projected for 2010. Indeed, mail volume was down 12.7 percent in 2009 and fell another three points through the first six months of this year. And less stamps means less revenue: the Postal Service lost $1.9 billion through the first two quarters of 2010 and is facing a deficit of approximately $7 billion next year.

There's no magic solution to balancing the books. After you've wrung as many efficiencies out of the system as possible in terms of automation and streamlined processes, you have no choice but to raise prices and decrease service. And so a two cent increase is planed for the end of the year, post offices are closing, and there's another push to go to 5-day a week delivery.

Unfortunately, this is one more bullet we'll just have to bite. For at least at this point in the process it's not like we can do without the paper versions of everything entirely. The legal and financial communities require hard copy, so you can't just say it wound up in the spam file, which is where much of their output actually belongs. Sure, you can read "People" online, but I for one don't want to bring my laptop to the beach. And where would the check be in if it weren't in the mail?

Perhaps your grandchildren's grandchildren will find it quaint that a person used to come to your house once a day to give you missives. For now, though, I'm still old school: when I see that that little yellow flag is up, my heart beats a little faster. For sure, the pickings are getting slimmer, but some days all its takes is a four color flyer from Target to make my day.


Marc Wollin of Bedford still looks forward to getting the mail. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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