on Apr 9th, 2013 in Ideas Worth Exploring | 10 comments

In 1963, the ZIP Code was introduced by the U.S. Postal Service as a means to deliver mail faster and cheaper. Fifty years later, this system has grown to provide unforeseen benefits as an infrastructure that enables commerce and organizes information. However, the ZIP Code was not universally accepted at the onset. To overcome skepticism from consumers and mailers, the Postal Service launched a creative outreach campaign led by a character called Mr. ZIP. This mailman caricature served as the primary advocate for the ZIP Code and increased public support for the idea enough to overcome the initial resistance from stakeholders. Below we interview Mr. ZIP to hear the story of the ZIP Code.


As Mr. ZIP mentions in his interview, the Postal Service Office of Inspector General Risk Analysis Research Center has worked with IBM to issue a white paper entitled The Untold Story of the ZIP Code. This white paper explores the lessons learned from the creation of the ZIP Code and estimates an economic value for the ZIP Code of about $10 billion annually across the entire economy. Most importantly, the paper presents two enhancements to strengthen the ZIP Code’s placement in the modern world:

  • Combine the ZIP Code with the precision of geocodes (latitude and longitude coordinates)
  • Improve the ZIP Codes value in targeting by linking demographic information with the ZIP Code and Utilizing the full ZIP +9 or some variation to offer smaller mailing groupings.

Combining the ZIP Code with geocodes could allow easier reconfiguration of delivery routes in real time as well as help align government in assisting disaster recovery efforts, tracking population “flight paths” to unaddressed areas, and increasing the capability to link demographics to unaddressed areas. Linking demographic information with the ZIP Code and offering smaller mailing groupings would improve target mailings. This would increase the value of mail for senders and receivers by connecting recipients with mail they want to receive and reducing less valuable broad mailings.

What ideas do you have for enhancing the ZIP Code to meet the demands of today’s ever-evolving society? How might the Postal Service enhance the ZIP Code to gain internal benefits? What enhancements would place the ZIP Code in a better position to provide the innovators and entrepreneurs new capabilities to meet today’s demands?


Make a machine that can actually read a zip code/bar code.

The important thing is to develop a fully integrated information transfer system that makes available any information individual citizens care to share. As the piece says, that should reduce mass mailings. If finer delineation of the space, i.e., beyond the ZIP Code, helps to accomplish this end, then it is a good thing.

I love Mr. Zip (especially when he looks right at the camera) and was happy to see Larry King coming out of retirement to do something special for the USPS. What does the 4 digit add on code represent anyway? Just curious.

The 4 digit add information on the blockface of the address; it is more precise than the 5 digit ZIP Code

This is an excellent paper. Even for those of us deeply enmeshed in postal issues, you might learn something you didn’t know about the ZIP Code. I found it interesting that business mailers resisted the ZIP Code when first introduced because of the (significant) costs they had to incur to implement. In the end, the ZIP Code investment was worth it, as the paper makes clear, because it helped to keep postage rates from rising excessively and it effectively opened the door to worksharing. I wonder if the Intelligent Mail Barcode is this era’s ZIP Code? The investment for mailers is significant but perhaps this is a technology that helps to keep future postage rates in check and opens up opportunities for a whole new slate of worksharing discounts. Not sure there is a larger societal value for IMb, but it would be interesting to contemplate.

Good paper, but the societal benefits of worksharing made possible by ZIP codes seem overstated. Is it possible that the Postal Service and the public might have been better served in the long run by a different ZIP code marketing strategy? One might argue that the Postal Service could and should have charged for non-postal use of ZIP codes after their initial adoption and acceptance by the public and mailers in the late 1960s.

Also, is “a representation of social identities” via ZIP code a good thing? The paper implies it is, but does not explain why.

That said, Mr. Zip is cool. Let’s hope the Postal Service allows him out of retirement.

If the model had been different and the Postal Service had charged for non-postal uses of the ZIP Code, then I’d like my “ZIP dividend.” The Post Office Department was taxpayer funded, so really U.S. taxpayers paid for the development of the ZIP code.

But that aside, the development of this improvement to the addressing system and the subsequent societal benefits to flow from it are just the sorts of things that a public institution like the Postal Service is supposed to provide its citizens. The UPU paper on Addressing the World strongly states that an address system is an essential infrastructure that enables access to other services. Its value to society cannot be overstated.

Yes, a civilised society needs a comprehensive addressing structure, but the paper describes the ZIP code as evolving into far more than that for many private industries in the U.S. after the late 1960s. It seems that, as additional uses of the ZIP code evolved and the patent on the ZIP code was filed, the Postal Service (as of 1971, no longer the Post Office Department) could conceivably have realized additional tangible benefits beyond increased mail volume and ease of sorting.

Also, I’m still not convinced that societal segmentation by ZIP code is a benefit, and would welcome other thoughts.

Since USPS maintains the primary delivery infrastucture/system that all U.S. Commerce (both governmental and private) uses; they should get a gov’t subsidy for it. That would also allow them to keep the cost of postage down. Post offices should have some lobby program (24-hr access like the self-mailing stations) for customers to print out various mailing labels–FREE–but in standard address format with ZIP+4′s. That way customers can take them home and put them on mailing pieces (from LCM to parcels) and then, LIKE BUSINESS MAIl, personal mail could eventually be correctly prepared and processed with automation.

Mr. ZIP, we love ya! HAPPY 50th B-Day.


ZipGrid, a USPS patent, has huge potential applications. The concept of integrating coordinates in association with Zip Codes needs to be begin implementation now, but the complex numbering scheme of lat/long is too complex and impractical for many intuitive uses which is why the FGDC adopted the US National Grid as a Federal standard. A good place to start is with the USPS smart phone apps and to supplement USPS facility street addresses. Similarly, the USPS is missing out on a great revenue product by not developing digital GIS data products for sale that are a secondary effect of USPS's huge physical prescience across the country.

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