02 July 2013

The Post Office's Big Problem

Every once in a while, I mail out a manuscript from our local post office. I do this from time to time - never with good results, mind you, but it's become a part of my routine. I always mail it in an envelope that looks like this:

I bought these envelopes in bulk some time ago, so I have a big stack of them in my home office.Until recently, this was no big deal. Though it's an oversize envelope, the size is 8.5 by 11 inches, fairly standard, and the contents aren't too thick.

But the last time I tried to use the envelope, I was told it would be subject to a surcharge. Why? Because of the metal clasp on the back.

I had never given the metal clasp any thought at all. It's a standard sort of thing that has been on business envelopes since time immemorial. It's an institution in institutions, as it were. But it apparently wreaks havoc with the Postal Service's new automated mail-processing machines, and any envelope that bears such a clasp needs to be hand-stamped by a Postal Service employee, doubling the mailing cost.

My choice: pay the surcharge, or replace a big stack of perfectly good envelopes with something a little more modern. I hate to waste office supplies, so for the time being, I have been paying the surcharge. Not without a grumble, though.

Yesterday, my daughter wrote from summer camp that it had been pouring, and she had forgotten her rain jacket. Could I please send it? I dug her rain jacket out of the closet and dashed to the post office. There, I grabbed a Priority Mail Flat Rate box from the display. The counter attendant gave me some free tape stamped with the "Priority Mail" logo. I stuffed the jacket inside, hastily addressed the box, and taped it closed.

I stood in line to mail the box. When I got to the front of the line, the attendant told me that it would cost $12 to send my box. If I had used a regular Priority Mail box, it would have cost $6.

"What's the difference?" I asked, momentarily confused.

"This is a Flat Rate box. It costs $12 to send, regardless of the weight of the contents. If you used a regular Priority Mail box" - he gestured to the Priority Mail display a few feet away, which, I now saw, contained both Flat Rate and regular boxes - "you could save half the price."

The boxes were identical, except for the legend "Flat Rate" on the more expensive one. "Can I just cross out the words 'Flat Rate?'" I asked.

"No. You have to repack it in a regular box. Do it - it will save you money."

"That's the stupidest thing I ever heard," I growled.

"I don't make the rules," he said.

I stormed over to the display, took a plain box, and repackaged my daughter's jacket. The Flat Rate box was destroyed and unusable - it had to be recycled. A waste. But the man at the counter didn't care. All he could see was that he was saving me $6 - a grand gesture on his part. He didn't understand why I thought the whole thing was ridiculous.

Then, today, the same daughter's monthly Archie comic book came in the mail. Knowing she'd want it right away, I headed for the post office with a metal-clasped envelope, prepared to pay the surcharge.

This time, inexplicably, they charged me the regular rate. I guess they didn't notice the clasp, or they didn't care.

But the young woman in front of me in line was sending out wedding invitations. They were oversized (though smaller than my envelope), and they were on heavy card stock. The postal employees gathered around the bride and made tut-tut noises. They adjudged the invitations "inflexible" and told her she'd have to pay for them as though they were small parcels. That meant - did I hear correctly? - a whopping $9 apiece - and each one going overseas would need a separate customs declaration.

The bride began to grumble, but then she squared up her shoulders and said, "What am I going to do? They have to get there." She gathered up her beautiful cards and walked over to the side counter, where she began filling out the customs declarations, one at a time. She was still there when I left.

Now, don't misunderstand. Unlike my dog, I love the Postal Service. I am happy to support it. There is no other service on earth that will deliver a letter door to door, anywhere in the United States, for less than a dollar. But when they complain that they are being put out of business by the electronic revolution, I always pause and think for a moment. I suppose I could submit manuscripts by e-mail. But there's no way to send my daughter her jacket or her comic book electronically. I think, sometimes, that the Post Office is in danger of going out of business not because of the availability of e-mail, but because of their inconsistent and sometimes baffling rules and customer service.

Is it me, or have you had similar experiences?

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