Update: Here’s an excellent long story from the Washington Informer about how the closing of a post office would affect one neighborhood in Washington, D.C., including some discussion of the “village post office” concept and why the postal workers’ union thinks that won’t work.
So, long time coming, but today we’re going to talk about the U.S. Post Office. As you may have heard, the Post Office is in some financial difficulty, and is considering significant branch closures as a way to stay solvent. (Google “post office to close” …) For someone who’s all about the disruptive innovation and leaving old business models and profit pools behind, I’m actually distressed by this — not for the reason you might think, but because it doesn’t have to be that way.
I forget where I heard this story, but it was the tale of a family traveling across the country, that would take a break in various small towns in the course of their travels. They had one cardinal rule: If they ever got separated in one of these towns — where they didn’t know their way around and didn’t know anybody — they should find their way to the town’s post office. Sooner or later, they reasoned, other family members would show up and they would be reunited. Why the post office? Because every town has one, and small towns have only one. For this family the post office represented kind of a beacon, a physical anchor in every community they visited. It was a means to a reconnection. I understand the post office’s current woes, and the need to cut costs. But this cost-cutting-only approach is committing the same sin as the newspaper industry committed — that is to say, trying to cut legacy costs as a path to sustainability rather than investing in new ways of doing business. (The post office I often use has unceremoniously changed its hours so that now it does not open until 10 am, but of course still closes at 5 pm — useless for someone who has to transact business outside of working hours.) Post offices are critical threads in the fabric of a community, and losing them would mean losing a critical piece of community connective tissue. So, what could the post office do to ensure its continued presence in a community? Jeff Jarvis asked this question prior to a talk he gave (and I responded), but he looked at it from a logistics/delivery perspective. I want to look at it more holistically. Here is some of the advice I would give the post office to to make itself viable in a digital communications age:
- Drop the real estate. It’s a fixed cost and it’s dragging you down. Your services don’t depend on a fixed physical location, as you’ll see below.
- Locate in high-traffic areas — kiosks in grocery stores or drug stores, for example. Everyone shops for food and many people shop for prescriptions; why not let them transact their business with you at the same time? (If Dunkin’ Donuts can do it, surely you can too.)
- Go mobile. Become the “mailmobile.” (You know, like the library’s bookmobile, or the local one-day-a-week farmers’ market.) The fixed costs of a vehicle are a lot lower than rent. Visit different neighborhoods on different days of the week. Customers will get used to the idea that they can transact business with you only on certain days, as long as it’s a sufficient number of days. This idea has the added benefit of bringing your services to areas that previously had no post office.
- Partner up with other community services. (This is the other side of the locate-in-high-traffic-areas coin.) Health clinic? Coffee shop? Farmers’ market? Why not a post office kiosk too?