Saturday, May 20, 2017

Chicken Run

When plotted on a graph, the data results in a shape that is a sort of a flattened bell curve: low in the beginning, high in the middle, tapering off at the end. But it's not showing the smarts of a bunch of high school juniors, nor how many people are confused by their smartphones, nor even the number of senators who secretly want to compromise on something, anything, but are afraid they'll be caught in a tweet storm.

Rather, it's the volume of letters sent via the US Postal Service over the last 40 years. Starting in 1926 when the numbers were first available, there was steady growth, though it moderated or modestly decreased with wars or depression. But overall, the trend was most decidedly up. You would have done well investing in greeting card futures.

However, around the beginning of this century the balance started to shift. As the internet started to become part of the fabric of the world, electronic communications began to become the preferred way to reach out. That led in very short order to a point in 1996 where the volume of emails surpassed that of snail mail. And it wasn't long before that bell curve started to cross over the center line and start its downward trajectory. As of the last accounting, the number is back to where it was in 1981, and the trend shows no sign of changing. As more and more commerce and communications moves online, there will less and less reason to stick a stamp on something and find a mailbox. Whether or not that number will drop to zero is questionable, as there will always be offers to review your insurance, appeals from charities and Mother's Day cards to keep your box from gathering dust.

Still, what's a Post Office to do? The business model of delivering letters to people's homes and businesses is in the proverbial death spiral. So the folks in blue have branched out into teaming with major online retailers like Amazon and even overnight delivery services like FedEx to take some of their less demanding traffic. They have tried to become mailing centers, selling not just stamps but packing materials. But there's only so much you can make from the occasional sale of a cardboard box.

In other countries the postal system has moved into other non-mail areas, like banking and investments. However Congress has prohibited that on these shores, and told them to stick to their knitting. But even trying to expand their mail franchise and expertise by selling branded postal meters has met with resistance. Companies like Pitney Bowes said it would cause "immediate harm" to its business, and the folks in Washington shut that down as well. Hell hath no fury like a company threatened with a congressperson on speed dial.  

Perhaps they need to look to other non-traditional yet analogous opportunities. For when you get right down to it, a delivery is a delivery is a delivery. And if they can find their way to my house with a letter or a pair of shoes or a blender, why not with some fried chicken? Or at least that's what they're trying in New Zealand.

Mike Stewart, a spokesman for NZ Post, says the problem is no different there than here: "All post offices around the world are struggling with what to do when mail disappears, we want to survive for another 100 years but we urgently need to diversify our business." And so they've teamed up Restaurant Brands, which operates KFC New Zealand. The resulting pilot project means that a call to the Colonel in Tauranga could result in your order of extra crispy goodness being brought to you courtesy of the same folks who brought you your phone bill.

At this point NZ Post is using contract drivers to make chicken runs using their own cars. But Stewart says that deliveries by actual NZ Post mail carriers and vans are "not out of the question." And when you think about it, it makes sense. I mean, if neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night can stop those carriers from getting you your copy of Business Week, would you want anything less for your bucket of hot wings? And if you're talking growth opportunities which would at you rather be licking: a stamp or your fingers?


Marc Wollin of Bedford hasn't touched a sheet of stamps in two months. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

No comments: