US Post Office - center of technology innovation?

PhotoStamps, Click 'n' Ship, and computerized kiosks - the Post Office is getting with the online world but is it too late to save first class mail?

Did you know about Click 'n' Ship? It's a US Post Office web service that lets customers find their  rates, print out the postage and schedule a free pickup. No waiting in lines or dealing with postal employees. It's just one of the innovative services Post Office officials tout in the Washington Post's coverage of the battle to "save" the Postal Service.

The problem has been getting out the word that Click-N-Ship even exists, in a world where many small-volume mailers now reflexively call United Parcel Service or FedEx. Day says even his own nephew was using UPS to ship things he sells on eBay.

"There is, in the younger generation, a sense that the Postal Service is out of date, slow and all the rest," he said. "So reaching them and letting them know that we do provide online services that are useful, customer friendly and timely is a challenge."

And then there's computerized kiosks that handle the many tasks you don't really need union members to do for you.

Computer-generation technology has also reached 2,000 postal offices nationwide in the form of new Automated Postal Centers, which can do many of the things people stand in line for: dispense stamp sheets, sell postage in any denomination, look up rates and Zip codes, provide certified mail receipts, and so on.

And then there's a deal with Stamps.com to let you print out your own commermorative stamps.

The Postal Service is in the midst of a second test of PhotoStamps, which let consumers put their own cute pictures on commemorative-size stamps they can order online. It was the brainchild of Stamps.com, which has long had a contract with the Post Office to sell postage online.

"To their credit, they went along with it," said company president and chief executive Ken McBride, who deems the test a success. From May to September, customers bought 3.5 million PhotoStamps, he said, featuring adorable kids, bouncy puppies and romantic moments.

"We believe a lot of this is new revenue," McBride said. "Customers are using PhotoStamps and coming back from electronic means of communication. They're excited about it, so they're sending real invitations rather than electronic invitations, personal letters instead of e-mail."

 All of this is very nice but can it stem a fundamental shift away from mailed bills and statements and to electronic delivery?

The decline in first-class mail is partly because people are writing fewer letters, but it's also closely tied to the banking industry. The more people pay bills online, the more money banks save, so they're making it easier to do. Financial remittances represent about $17 billion of the Postal Service's $70 billion operating revenue, so it's a big chunk to lose.

"My concern would be . . . there comes a tipping point in the financial services industry where the balance goes so heavily towards electronic means of communication for bills and bill payment that they may get more aggressive in providing incentives to customers to get them out of the mail," Day said.