No Christmas Miracle at the Post Office

Will this year's holiday shipping season be the last for dozens of U.S. post office branches?

Bob Guitierrez hopes not. For more than four decades, the Kansas City business owner has been a loyal customer of his local Kansas Avenue post office station, which sits across the street from his food manufacturing plant, Art's Mexican Products. Today, it is one of more than 200 post office locations around the country that the U.S. Postal Service is considering closing as it grapples with revenue declines that led to a $3.8 billion loss this year.

Guitierrez's local station has limited hours but the service is friendly and he prefers it, he said, to independent shipping companies.

"The post office is more personal," he said.

The last few months have been a trying time for supporters of the 234-year-old government-run mail service. Over the summer, the U.S.P.S. began reviewing whether to close some 3,600 post office branches and stations of its 36,000 locations. The closure decisions, the U.S.P.S. said, would be based on factors such as delivery volumes per location and proximity to other post offices.

By last month, the postal service had culled its list of at-risk locations to 241. (Click here for the latest list.) The U.S.P.S. now says that if any of those branches are closed, it won't happen until February at the earliest -- but that's cold comfort to those who say they want to keep their local offices open for good, not just for a couple more months.

Even those mail fans relieved to learn that their neighborhood branches would be saved still have to contend with another unnerving possibility: Since January, Postmaster General John E. Potter has been pushing Congress to allow the postal service to cut its delivery schedule from six days a week to five, eliminating Saturday delivery.

"We have concluded that reducing the frequency of mail delivery from six to five days a week can provide the financial relief that is necessary to restore the fiscal health of the Postal Service," Potter told a Senate subcommittee during a hearing in August.

The change, Potter said, is "difficult but necessary."

Abandoning 'Snail Mail'

Even as the U.S. population and the number of places the post office delivers to grows, the U.S.P.S. is losing business like never before. It delivered 177 billion pieces of mail in its past fiscal year, a steep 13 percent drop from 2008 and a marked new low point for the decade. Since 2000, mail volume had bounced between the old low of 202 billion pieces of mail and and a high of 213 billion.

The recession helps to account for much of this year's decline -- cash-strapped businesses are spending less on mailings -- but the general trend of abandoning what many now call "snail mail" in favor of zippy Internet-based communication and transactions, including bill payments, is the more worrisome culprit for the U.S.P.S.

Now, "it's absolutely essential that we refocus our business effort to change with changing consumer behavior and the times," said U.S.P.S. spokesman Greg Frey.

Much of the post office's changes to date have involved shrinking -- it recently saved $6 billion by eliminating 12,000 postal carrier routes by cutting employees' hours, freezing salaries and stopping all new hiring, among other moves. Head count at the post office is down too: from 787,538 in 1999 to 623,128 this year.

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