I am not one of those who bash the U.S. Postal Service. First class mail is a bargain at 32 cents (although with e-mail and electronic bill-paying I use less and less of it). The postal carriers really do deliver in the worst kind of weather, and I don’t believe it for a minute when people tell me the check they sent must have been “lost in the mail.” Slowed down in the mail, perhaps. Mangled every once in a while. But lost? Virtually never, in my experience.

That said, I am looking at a preposterous U.S. Postal Service ad in the Wall Street Journal. Full page. It shows a +$12 FedEx Pak, a +$6 UPS 2nd Day Air Pak, and a +$3 Priority Mail envelope.

Down the left side of the page it lists some other advantages, besides the Postal Service’s lower price. The first: MORE AIRPLANES. “We use more airplanes than FedEx and UPS combined to make sure your priority package or envelope gets to its destination.”

And they have more trucks, and you don’t have to call for a pickup, and they deliver Saturdays at no extra charge . . .

This ad is 23 inches tall. Everything about it is nice and big and legible. Except the one footnote, one-sixteenth of an inch high. It says (if you squint) “Price comparisons are based on Priority Mail up to 2 lbs. versus 2-lb. published rates for UPS 2nd Day Air and FedEx 2Day. Priority Mail is delivered in a national average of 2-3 days, measured from Post Office to Post Office.”

In other words, this whole ad is a joke. Because Priority Mail is no faster or more reliable than First Class! Imagine if the FedEx ads said, “When you need to get it there in two or three days, positively, on average. Well, not there exactly; we’re measuring that from FedEx station to FedEx station. But certainly within 3 or 4 days most of the time and rarely more than a week or two.”

Because that’s what you get for $3 from Priority Mail.

The service may have improved, but back when the slogan was “two pounds, two days, two dollars and ninety cents,” I had one Priority Mail piece that took +two months to make it from Miami to New York. There was nothing unusual about the item. The address was correct; it hadn’t been mangled. It just took two months. (It was as light as a feather, containing nothing more than a $5,000 check. After a couple of weeks, we stopped payment and FedExed a replacement.) Two months is the record for me, but there have been others in the 7-to-10-day range.

And why not? Because if the national average is “two or three days,” you’re going to need a heck of a lot of horror stories to make up for the ones that actually get across town overnight. (In Miami, this happens with First Class mail much of the time.)

One day, with all those planes and trucks, perhaps they’ll have something worth advertising.

“We’ve gotten our act together,” such an ad would read, “and can now guarantee to deliver Priority Mail in one or two days ordinarily, but three without fail.” Something like that might be worth paying for. But until then, it’s First Class for anything that isn’t time-critical; FedEx or UPS for everything else.

And lest you think I’m complaining only about a government-sector behemoth . . .

Tomorrow: IBM: Room for Improvement


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