The Washington Post reports that “in the past year alone, the Postal Service has seen the single largest drop-off in mail volume in its 234-year history…. That downward trend is only accelerating. 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.”
No, physical delivery won’t ever die. (Like a good newspaperman, I lie in headlines to get attention.) Indeed, we’ll get more ever deliveries of more stuff that used to be on store shelves but are now ordered online. That’s what UPS’ and FedEx’ businesses are built for. But, as the Post says, we’re sending fewer messages to each other; we have much better means to do that now. And companies are trying hard to reduce their cost of dealing with us – billing, bank statements – by taking that online.
There is still a business to be had in distributing coupons and circulars (aka junk mail); this is why newspapers are holding onto delivery a day or two a week. But that’s transitional; it won’t last forever.
As volume decreases, costs to users will increase as deliverers try to cover fixed costs that just can’t be cut anymore. Newspapers like to think they, too, have fixed costs and that’s why they keep whining that readers “should” pay their bills. But they don’t; for their core business – content and advertising – papers have new efficiencies online that the Postal Service doesn’t have. Except for those trucks and presses. They are fixed costs and that puts them in the same sinking ship as the mail.
At some point soon, the couponers will desert both the Postal Service and newspapers because they’ll be just too expensive. But consumers still want coupons; they have real value. (I often tell the story of coming back from a strike when I was Sunday editor of the New York Daily News. We didn’t have coupons because our new owner, Robert Maxwell, was feuding with Rupert Murdoch, who controls coupons – aka FSIs or free-standing inserts – in the U.S. When we got them back, circulation went up more than 100,000. Those readers weren’t buying news. They were buying ads.) Coupons are creeping online but it’s still a pain to deal with them digitally. Mobile devices may be the solution, but they’re not there yet.
So physical coupons and circulars are still great business – if you can get them into consumers’ hands. And it occurs to me that someone will craigslist – that is, undercut – both newspapers and the Postal Service in the delivery business. It’s in the interests of Murdoch’s coupon empire to do so and work with large retailers that produce circulars to come up with an alternative. Or an entrepreneur could establish a network to make it happen. I see the return of the paperboy (oops, the world has changed since then; pardon me: the paperyoungperson): networks of small agents who can deliver this material, which isn’t wildly timely (get it there this week) without the cost structure needed for individualized delivery – the Postal Service – or with a time wrapper of expensive content – the newspaper. Again, it’s transitional, but it’s a nice business for some years.
Here’s what happens then: The cost of mailing an old-fashioned letter will become prohibitive as the Postal Service covers its fixed costs for a system we won’t kill.
And the economic benefit of distributing a Sunday newspaper will all but disappear and news organizations – the ones still standing – will have no reason to hold onto the presses and trucks.