The U.S. Postal Service Needs Financial Protection

Even in crisis, exacerbated by COVID-19, there’s not likely to be new postal reform bill any time soon. So here we are now: the U.S. Postal Service needs financial protection.

COVID-19 may have frozen ad budgets, including direct mail, but the financial woes of the U.S. Postal Service have pre-dated the current crisis. Calls for postal reform to facilitate all types of fiscal fixes have gone unanswered, despite bipartisan support to get the job done. Huge Congressional mandates from 2006 to pre-fund healthcare costs for future retirees – which do not exist to any such extent in the private sector – are just one example of how politicking gets in the way of running USPS more efficiently.

On paper, the U.S. Postal Service should be holding its own. And it had been through the end of last year.

A Formidable Job of Management Couldn’t Predict a Crash

Mix and match, but it’s been managed. In 2010, First-Class Mail volume was 77.6 billion pieces. In 2019, it was 54.7 billion – a nearly 30% decline. Marketing Mail also declined, but less precipitously – from 81.8 billion pieces to 75.7 billion. Meanwhile, as direct-to-consumer (DTC) shopping has taken hold, parcel volume has doubled from 3.1 billion to 6.2 billion package deliveries, making the USPS truly the Greatest Carpool on Earth. (Happy Earth Day.)

And though there is mail volume decline, the “mail moment” remains vital, and delivery points have increased from 150.9 million in 2010 to 160 million in 2019. Against this expanse, the USPS has shed 93,000 jobs in 10 years, maintaining 497,000 positions in 2019.

Throughout all this, USPS operating revenue has increased to more than $71 billion, from $67 billion in 2010. Rate hikes have been predictable and better managed. So why the carnage?

Yes, it’s COVID-19. Mail volumes reportedly have dropped by 30% since the crisis began. Add to this the hands-tied effects of the Congressional mandates – and it’s no wonder the USPS Postmaster General is seeking a “we need cash” bailout. This time, will Congress – and The White House – answer the call? According to The Washington Post, as of Friday, April 24, President Trump stated he would not approve of emergency aid for the Postal Service if it didn’t raise prices for package delivery immediately.

We Can Debate the Amount – But Let’s Recognize These Heroes at Work

The U.S. Postal Service is a quasi-governmental operation that answers by U.S. Constitution to the American people – but is called upon to run as a business. And it indeed tries. Yet it can’t just set rates on its own, as everyone gets a voice in rate-making and operations, even competitors.

Even in crisis, exacerbated by COVID-19, there’s not likely to be new postal reform bill any time soon. So here we are now: the U.S. Postal Service needs financial protection.

It’s hard to blame the USPS, but that doesn’t stop President Trump from calling out sweetheart deals that don’t exist. Add to the cacophony those who wish to privatize – answer to shareholders instead of the public – and sparks fly. Postal labor interests, for one, are powerful – and so are marketing mail and parcel customers. No one wants to upend the letter carrier.

But a virus might just do that.

So as I put on my mask and gloves, and go to the mailbox as part of my daily heightened ritual, I retrieve my personally addressed parcels, flats and letters. I spray them with Lysol. I open and read each piece, and I recycle each piece when I’m done (Happy Earth Day again). And I wish Godspeed, and a few billion tax dollars, to all these postal heroes who are keeping American commerce every day in movement. We need you. America needs you. Thank you.

How Do We Leverage Data to Drive a Faster Economic Recovery?

As growth leaders, we will be waking to a world with fewer resources and businesses desperate to grow again once we get past the coronavirus pandemic. However, in our struggle to regain our financial footing we will have a very valuable resource that previous generations did not: data and data science.

As growth leaders, we will be waking to a world with fewer resources and businesses desperate to grow again once we get past the coronavirus pandemic. And despite the global hardships that will be felt by many, in our struggle to regain our financial footing we will have a very valuable resource that previous generations did not: data and data science.

When used well, data science will help direct scarce resources to the right opportunities and efficiently drive growth. I am convinced this will be a big differentiator versus previous recoveries of this magnitude.

Over my career, I have consistently encountered inefficient and counter-productive practices in data-driven decision management and have written about them often. They are paralleled in the crisis today. Below are three issues I would like us all to think about when we leverage data science to rebuild the national and world economy.

1. Customer Data Hoarding

Companies collect so much data that many are “drowning in data.” If you have no idea of the value of what you are collecting, then it is digital garbage.

We were led to believe that AI and data mining would help make sense of the data. It does to some extent, but more often it leads to head-scratching conclusions. We can’t leverage what we can’t understand.

As a data-driven consultant, I am amazed at how much time is spent sifting through data just trying to make sense of it all before any valuable insights can be generated. Going forward we cannot afford this luxury. If there are 10 gallons of fuel in the tank, we can’t spend five gallons trying to figure out if the engine works. However, when it comes to mining company data, we often do.

2. It’s About Qualitative, Not Just Quantitative

We can’t be slaves to the data we have. Collecting the right data is often cheap and easily done, if time is taken to plan. This means that measurement strategy can’t be a retrospective exercise. Too often, I have engaged clients in the post-mortem analysis of very important projects. In many cases, my team is often limited to the data that is available and not the data that was needed. Critical answers are sometimes left unanswered. This is a waste of time, resources and most importantly, valuable information.

3. Data Is Not the Solution, It’s the Tool

We must regularly remind ourselves that data does not solve problems or create opportunities. Rather, brave decision making solves problems and creates opportunities. Data is a valuable tool that can only inform the decisions we need to make. It can help lower the risk and provide valuable insights. Sometimes, collecting more data before acting can be wise. Other times it can also be the delay in action that leads to disaster.

What is happening today has no parallel in recent memory. While the 1918 flu pandemic had similar infection rates, the world was a different place then. Today, we have advanced tools and technology to aid our recovery.

Data science will be one of those important tools, especially if we collectively decide to use it to its true potential. As a result, I am hopeful that we can come out of this faster than we realize.

New Paper Recovery Data Shows Impact of Recession, Digital Media

New data from the American Forest & Paper Association regarding paper recovery rates in the United States has some good news—and not-so-good news—regarding U.S. recycling collection. As marketers, we need to pay close attention to these rates, and take active steps to support increased recovery, since such recovery can have positive impact on recycled paper supply and pricing, as well as other marketplace concerns regarding our print communications and paper packaging.

New data from the American Forest & Paper Association regarding paper recovery rates in the United States has some good news—and not-so-good news—regarding U.S. recycling collection. As marketers, we need to pay close attention to these rates, and take active steps to support increased recovery, since such recovery can have positive impact on recycled paper supply and pricing, as well as other marketplace concerns regarding our print communications and paper packaging.

The good news is that the paper business has continued to increase recovery rates for all types of paper, achieving a record 66.8-percent recovery for the nation [see the first image in the media player at right].

For printing and writing grades, recovery rates slipped from its 2009 recovery percentage peak of 61.0 percent, now registering a 56.8-percent recovery rate, but still ahead of the pre-recession recovery rate [see the second image in the media player at right].

In both the overall market for all grades combined, and the printing & writing grades market, the peak year for paper consumption (the bars on both of the preceding graphs) was pre-recession 2007, a high point we have yet to re-attain in both categories as our economy has returned to tepid growth.

However, by looking at just printing & writing grades consumption, the falloff from the 2007 peak, and the lack of recovery, is far more pronounced than in the paper market overall—fully a 23.7-percent drop from 2007 to 2011. This is certainly a sign that while the recession prompted a pullback, digital media has brought on a migration from print communications, and most certainly in postal mail. That data is supported by declining U.S. Postal Service First-Class Mail volume data, and near-minimal growth in Standard Mail.

Thus, the generally higher recovery rates are generated by higher recycling collection activity or perhaps a more expansive recovery infrastructure, but also by source reduction—there’s just less printing and writing papers being generated.

Certainly, the role of direct mail is changing in an increasingly mobile, digital age—and thankfully, we’re getting a good percentage of what we do consume recycled. We need to do better.

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