Have We Achieved ‘Peak Mail’?

In the energy industry, a couple of years ago, there was active discussion of “peak oil”—the very point where half the world’s known, proven oil reserves had been extracted and put to use, leaving less than half yet to be tapped or discovered.  In the U.S. mail industry, perhaps, too, we’ve reached “peak mail”—except there’s no extraction and no finite supply here: simply the notion that pricing, and changing use and acceptance of mail by consumers and businesses, is driving demand elsewhere, and that we’ve entered an era of post-peak mail in volume.

In the energy industry, a couple of years ago, there was active discussion of “peak oil”—the very point where half the world’s known, proven oil reserves had been extracted and put to use, leaving less than half yet to be tapped or discovered. The thought then was that oil still available would become more dear (read, expensive) because our unrelenting global appetite for the stuff would far outstrip supply.

Of course, conservation, increasing fuel efficiency, and alternate sources of power could mitigate demand in such a way that the pricing effects of past-peak oil could be less severe. What if the world, in fits and starts, simply transformed to an economy that relied on other, less expensive, sources of energy (nuclear, natural gas, hydroelectric, geothermal, solar, wind, biofuels and the like). Perhaps this scenario is happening now.

In the U.S. mail industry, perhaps, too, we’ve reached “peak mail”—except there’s no extraction and no finite supply here: simply the notion that pricing, and changing use and acceptance of mail by consumers and businesses, is driving demand elsewhere, and that we’ve entered an era of post-peak mail in volume.

In 2010, the Boston Consulting Group in its “Projecting U.S. Mail Volumes to 2020” report stated:

The U.S. Postal Service will experience profound declines in its volumes of mail and its net income over the next decade under its current business model, presenting a grave threat to its viability. Massive structural changes are required to avoid this outcome. We forecast U.S. postal volumes to decrease from 177B pieces in 2009 to around 150B pieces in 2020 under business-as-usual assumptions. Notably, volumes will not revisit the high-water-mark of 213B pieces in 2006 – on the contrary, the trajectory for the next 10 years is one of steady decline, which will not reverse even as the current recession abates. Expressing the decline in terms of pieces per delivery point highlights the challenge: we project pieces per household per day to fall from four pieces today to three in 2020 – driven by decreasing volumes delivered to an increasing number of addresses. We also project a rapid mix shift from very lucrative First-Class Mail to less-profitable Standard Mail. The volume decline and the mix shift, coupled with an increasing cost base, will cause profits to experience steep, unrelenting declines. Starting with the 2009 loss of $4B, we expect a steady string of increasing losses, culminating with an approximately $15B loss in 2020 (based on USPS and McKinsey cost forecasts). These declining volumes are unlikely to reverse.

So far—four years, and two years of data—toward 2020, this striking scenario is largely playing out: “USPS: A Decade of Facts and Figures.” (See the chart in the media player at right.)

None of this is to say there is a diminished role for direct mail in a post peak-mail digital age. Quite the contrary, the role of direct mail is simply changing, gaining efficiency in targeting, response and engagement—and learning its space and place in an omnichannel marketing environment. In its various postage promotions for 2014, the USPS is testing and encouraging such innovation and integration.

In a recent presentation to the Direct Marketing Club of New York, Bruce Biegel of The Winterberry Group, saw direct mail spending in 2013 actually grow by 1.2 percent, and is projecting another 1.1 percent uptick this year. (Postage hikes in 2013, and coming in 2014, well exceed both these growth percentages.) “Direct mail should be growing because it works,” Biegel said as he announced his findings and projections. “Digital doesn’t do enough in customer acquisition.” This is encouraging news following years of decline.

Volume, however, is not immune to increases in postage, paper and print costs, and to digital migration, and in this scenario, we are really in a situation where USPS infrastructure must continue to adjust to changing mail composition, shape, class and purpose—while continuing to serve all its stakeholders. First-Class Mail peaked in 2000, and Standard Mail in 2007—and we most likely never will return to such volumes ever again.

Keep the CPI Postal Rate Cap Alive!

There are no guarantees when “grand” budget and funding bills make their way through Congress … there’s always a chance some horse-trading will be tacked on that undermines the interests of and harms the direct marketing community. That’s why I was more than an interested bystander when a federal budget deal was announced last week that seeks to keep the government funded without another costly shutdown

There are no guarantees when “grand” budget and funding bills make their way through Congress … there’s always a chance some horse-trading will be tacked on that undermines the interests of and harms the direct marketing community. That’s why I was more than an interested bystander when a federal budget deal was announced last week that seeks to keep the government funded without another costly shutdown.

There’s nothing in this bill (so far) that is nefarious to marketers (a vote is still needed in the Senate). In the whole of the budget bill, some fiscal conservatives are not happy—prompt spending controls have been punted, and deficit reductions have been kicked down the road, a reflection of our still-weak economy being the rationale.

But it’s also a reflection of what’s dysfunctional in Washington: A seemingly ever-present readiness and willingness to punt fiscal discipline in more matters than just the federal budget. At least the three-year pattern of budget shutdowns and debt ceilings may be diverted. At least we can hope.

Now to postal reform … which was not part of the budget bill.

We need postal reform legislation—both political parties and nearly all postal stakeholders agree on this, but there’s devil in details in a current Senate proposal to move another breakthrough piece of legislation forward.

The reason for postal reform’s urgency, however, has nothing to do with the annual rate cap on postage increases that is now part of federal law.

Yet this most precious centerpiece for ratepayers of the 2006 postal reform act—the Consumer Price Index-Urban annual rate cap on postage hikes—is dispensed in the Carper-Coburn Postal Reform Act of 2013 (S. 1486) bill now before the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee. Crucially for us, Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) is leading a bipartisan effort to remove from the bill Section 301 (a Section which would eliminate this rate cap for market-dominant classes, among them First-Class Mail and Standard Mail). If she is successful, the vital rate cap would be preserved. A markup for the bill overall in Committee is scheduled for this coming Tuesday (Dec. 18), so there is still time to voice support for Sen. Baldwin’s effort to amend the legislation and save the cap.

What is urgent, of course, is relief from 2006 Congressional mandates to pre-fund retiree health benefits at a magnitude that was (and still is) wholly unsustainable and has proven to be unrealistic. One might say how ironic it is to have a column praising fiscal discipline bemoan a pre-funding mandate, but this type of mandate is unprecedented, unwarranted and blind to financial facts. The CPI cap, on the other hand, has been an extremely useful tool to USPS and its customers and, arguably, an important driver of USPS management efforts to “right size” USPS infrastructure to today’s mail (and marketing) realities.

Fiscal discipline matters to the private sector, and to all U.S. citizens in our own households and our business affairs. It is shocking (to a layperson, if not Beltway insiders) that such discipline means little to too many policymakers. Price caps are a common-sense, and extremely demonstrable, method for assuring predictable increments in postage hikes which serves to aid businesses and nonprofit organizations in their marketing and media planning. Take these caps away, and we’re back to uncertainty, costs rising unchecked and diverted dollars from direct mail media spending.

Stay tuned to industry organization efforts to see postal reform through—but with the all-important CPI rate cap intact. I’m hopeful Sen. Baldwin has a great week, and so do we.