We get a lot of complaints from people who've had problems with the post office. Last summer, for example, a Manhattan man and his roommates went an entire month without receiving a single piece of U.S. mail, and despite a well-documented paper trail proving that various items had been mailed but not delivered, they never succeeded in getting their month's worth of mail, and the post office went so far as to insist they had no way of knowing exactly who was responsible for delivering it anyway.
But even if you're one of the unlucky Americans whose bills, legal notices, passports, packagesor magazine subscriptions vanish under the aegis of the United States Postal Service, you can reliably count upon a steady supply of unwanted junk mail.
There's a mathematically valid reason for that, too: in the past generation, the rise of email, free long-distance phone calls, Skype and other super-cheap and lightning-fast communication technologies have killed much of the market for first-class mail. If you want to keep in touch with out-of-state friends and relatives, you have much faster and cheaper options nowadays than writing and mailing a letter.
Junk mail pays the freight
So junk mail (or “direct mail marketing,” the preferred term of junk-mailers themselves) is of great financial importance to the post office. Back in May 2011, Bloomberg Businessweek cited this milestone to illustrate why:
[The USPS] relies on first-class mail to fund most of its operations, but first-class mail volume is steadily declining—in 2005 it fell below junk mail for the first time. This was a significant milestone. The USPS needs three pieces of junk mail to replace the profit of a vanished stamp-bearing letter.
Which explains why the post office opposes any attempt to cut down on junk-mail deliveries, including the now-defunct service formerly offered by a company called Outbox, a once-promising startup which offered to “digitize” people's physical mail — in exchange for a monthly fee.
Outbox drivers would visit subscribers' physical mailboxes three times per week, collect and make electronic copies of all mailings therein, and send e-copies of the mail to the customer. Here's how CNN described the then-new business in February 2013:
The idea is that for $4.99 a month, someone can make their pesky physical mail disappear (assuming they can resist the urge to peek in their mailbox between pickups). Using a mobile device or computer, Outbox customers can organize mail in files or forward them as e-mails, ask to be unsubscribed from junk mail, have unwanted items destroyed or request that important mail, such as a wedding invite or a postcard, be re-delivered to their home.
But the post office opposed the entire business model, and released a statement at the time which said:
“The Postal Service is focused on providing an essential service in our mission to serve the American public and does not view Outbox as supporting that mission. We do have concerns regarding the destruction of mail -- even if authorized by the receiver -- and will continue to monitor market activities to ensure protection of our brand and the value and security of the mail.”
Didn't last long
Tampering with the mail (especially without the recipient's permission) is indeed a federal offense, but Outbox founders compared their service to asking your neighbor to pick up your mail for you while you're out of town.
The experiment didn't last long. After initial operations in Austin, Texas and in San Francisco, Outbox shut down earlier this year, either because they weren't getting enough paying customers to cover their operating costs — or because they couldn't, unless the post office allowed customers to forward their mail to Outbox.
A TechCrunch reporter who wrote about the shutdown in January noted:
“That may not come as a huge surprise to the critics who found the idea impractical or downright creepy. I tried it out myself for a few months, but eventually canceled my subscription. I wasn’t bothered by Outbox employees opening my mail, it just wasn’t as useful as I’d hoped, and it was a pain for me to coordinate with a roommate who didn’t subscribe.”
On the other hand, while Outbox remained in operation, there were plenty of customers who said pretty much the opposite. In February 2013, the news blog for NPR's Austin affiliate wrote about this new business offering in the area, including some background information about Outbox co-founders Will Davis and Evan Baehr, and quoted an enthusiastic customer:
Marcia Navratil heard about Outbox from a friend, a former letter carrier for the post office. Navratil says she hated getting the mail – especially the junk mail. "It works great," saidNavratil. "I love it. I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t get their mail this way, unless you just really like having paper delivered to your house."
But all that love is not sitting well with the Postal Service.
Indeed not. That February 2013 NPR story continued by saying this:
Early on, Outbox’s co-founders had a meeting with U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe to pitch their idea. Davis remembers the moment:"He looked at us and said we have a misunderstanding. 'You disrupt my service and we will never work with you.'"
Co-founder Evan Baehr says Outbox works with permission from the customer, and at a point where the USPS' job is done: "USPS is protective of the mail stream. We exist at the end. We’re doing it not on behalf of the postal service but on behalf of the user."
Who calls the shots?
So just who, exactly, is the postal service acting on behalf of? Just this week, three months after Outbox shut down and 14 months after that meeting with the postmaster general, Outbox made headlines again after InsideSources.com posted a story about Baehr and Davis, including a more detailed account of their discussion with Postmaster General Donahoe.
When they met with Donahoe they'd initally thought maybe Outbox could work together with the USPS — given the post office's constant financial woes, the USPS could save considerable money on delivery costs to Outbox subscribers. However, according to Inside Sources, here's what actually happened:
When Evan [Baehr] and Will [Davis] got called in to meet with the Postmaster General they were joined by the USPS’s General Counsel and Chief of Digital Strategy. But instead, Evan recounts that US Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe “looked at us” and said “we have a misunderstanding. ‘You disrupt my service and we will never work with you.’” Further, “‘You mentioned making the service better for our customers; but the American citizens aren’t our customers — about 400 junk mailers are our customers. Your service hurts our ability to serve those customers.”’
Inside Sources contacted the post office for comment about Donahoe's (alleged) commentary before publishing the story, and copied the post office's response in full:
Thanks for contacting us about your story. Please see our statement below—that is all we have to say on this topic at this time.
Manager, Media Relations
U.S. Postal Service
The Postal Service is focused on providing an essential service in our mission to serve the American public and does not view Outbox as supporting that mission. We do have concerns regarding the destruction of mail—even if authorized by the receiver—and will continue to monitor market activities to ensure protection of our brand and the value and security of the mail.
Sound familiar? It's the same statement the post office released about Outbox in February 2013.
So for now, there's apparently some room for debate, regarding whether the post office currently serves the American public, or the direct-mail marketers who send unwanted junk mail to the American public.
Incidentally, on previous occasions when this website has published various consumer-based articles about free online search engines, email providers or social media platforms, it often mentioned a common Internet proverb: “If you're not paying them anything, you're not their customer; you're what they're selling.”
Where junk mail is concerned, you're not paying the post office for it, so maybe you're not the customer there, either.