No Christmas Miracle at the Post Office

But postal officials also insist there are bright spots on the post office's financial picture that actually involve expanding service rather than cutting. More customers have been using the U.S.P.S.'s Priority Mail flat rate boxes -- boxes that ship for a set price, irrespective of the contents' weight -- including a new, smaller-sized box option.

Priority Mail shipments generated more than $5.3 billion in revenue for the U.S.P.S. in 2009. That's $120 milllion less than Priority Mail brought to the bottom line the year before, but the drop is slight compared to the $2.3 billion revenue decline for first-class mail delivery this year.

Frey called Priority Mail "a runaway success."

"It works very well, it's reasonably priced and it's been well received," he said.

Cutting to Survive

Other advances touted by the U.S.P.S. include the sale of greeting cards at certain post office locations, the growing availability of stamps at numerous outlets beyond post offices and the advent of online shipping, through which customers print shipping labels from the U.S.P.S.'s Web site and then call for free package pickup.

For the short term, meanwhile, the postal service is looking forward to another busy holiday shipping season.

The U.S.P.S. expects that this Monday will be the busiest mailing day of the year, with more than 830 million cards, letters and packages expected to fill mail carriers' sacks, compared to 583 million on a typical day.

"We definitely have seasonality for our business," Frey said.

Critics, however, argue that no new revenue stream or holiday shipping bonanza will make up for the continuing drop in customer demand.

The postal service, which does not receive tax revenue, has no choice but to continue to cut costs through moves like shedding one day of delivery, said Rick Geddes, an associate professor at Cornell University and the author of "Saving the Mail: How to Solve the Problems of the U.S. Postal Service."

"If the U.S.P.S. does not cut costs in the face of declining demand, its demise will simply be accelerated," Geddes wrote in an e-mail to

"It is noteable," he added, "that the alternative is a taxpayer bailout, which is something that I think should be avoided at all cost."

Guitierrez in Kansas City, meanwhile, has his own suggestion for postal solvency.

"If they need to raise more money, all they have to do is raise the price of the stamps," he said, noting that the postal service has taken that step plenty of times before.

But in an October letter to customers, Potter made clear that that won't be an option -- at least not in 2010. Raising rates again, he wrote, would only drive business away.

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