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USPS Needs Marketing 101

2004 marks the second consecutive year (at least from my point of view; your mileage may vary) that the USPS has fumbled its spotlight marketing period to those of primarily philatelic pursuits.

October, traditionally billed by the USPS as "Stamp Collecting Month," is usually the time for the USPS to roll out not only its "showcase" issue designed to entice new collectors, but also cater to seasonal mailers with eye-catching new holiday issues.

Last year, dismal availability of the showcase issue, coupled with a reissue of the traditional (religious) Christmas design and a poorly-received contemporary Christmas design (Holiday Music Makers), left a bad taste in the mouths of U.S. collectors, despite the fact that all issues were self-adhesive!

2004 is unfortunately off to a very similar start, due in part to a delay in the contemporary Christmas design to November to accommodate a retailer's promotion. Additionally, very poor foresight and a diversion of management resources to deal with a Stamps.com's PhotoStamps, coupled with unusually enthusiastic response following hourly promotion by The Weather Channel of the Cloudscapes issue, caught the USPS in a short squeeze. The result was many stations selling out of the issue in hours. Another complicating factor uncovered by this reporter is that most stations only received meager quantities to begin with, in some cases as few as thirty panes.

This haphazard marketing practice is not limited to philately, however, as the newly-deployed Automated Postal Centers, whose job it was to provide revenue (from the mailing of larger items) after regular window hours, were seemingly incapacitated during the Columbus Day holiday. Attempts by this reporter to mail items on Columbus Day (using the APC) were met with "unavailable" messages at multiple locations.

It goes without saying that there is no excuse for poor customer service, but the USPS seemingly appears to take that observation with a grain of salt, forgetting that in other countries, such (poor) service has been used by some to further the cause of postal privatization and/or competition. The USPS might want to consider that in an improving economy, some might take the opportunity and pay a few cents more to ship using a competing service. The erosion of the USPS' market share of the parcel market to the (now three) major competitors would seem to bode ill for the behemoth that still manages to handle a little more than eight percent of the daily total domestic package market.

To be sure, doomsayers have been forecasting the demise of the USPS for decades. (Research on this article dug up web-based documents from the late 1980s!) Their ability to market to collectors had been one of their redeeming qualities, however. Recent events to consolidate or "corral" collectors into using one point of distribution (Kansas City) have been met with some resistance, especially from the smaller collector who doesn't want to pay the extra $1 to $3 for shipping, despite the fact that their local office is so poorly stocked. Their subscription service has also shown only lackluster performance, due in part to the huge increase in the number of designs being issued annually. The unfortunate result of their marketing shortcomings is a disgruntled collector who looks elsewhere (other topics and/or countries), or stops collecting altogether.

The USPS needs to recognize that customer service is the lifeblood that will enable them to generate the sales numbers that will maintain and further their transformation plan. They have been repeatedly reinforcing the concept with the rank-and-file that populate their windows, but need to send the marketing gurus back to school to re-learn what could ultimately prove to be their Achilles' heel.

by John Cropper

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