• on Aug 26th, 2013 in Products & Services | 7 comments

    Everyone loves getting something for free. Soon, you may have to look no further than your mailbox for a free sample. The U.S. Postal Service is offering consumer package goods companies and other direct mailers a discount on sending product samples in the mail through the end of September.

    “They’ll buy it, if they try it” is how the Postal Service is marketing its Product Samples mail promotion. It would seem that many marketers agree with that tagline.  A marketing expert quoted in a recent article in Marketplace called sending samples “perhaps the single most effective marketing method there is, especially for new products.” But difficulty in measuring samples’ success, and a rise over the years in postage for sending samples through the mail, has made it something of a lost art. Some former users of product samples say the Postal Service’s pricing changes in the late 1990s helped kill this mail product.

    Product samples have some challenges, however. One is how best to track sales leads from the distribution of a sample product. For example, a company handing out shampoo at a gym might not know if the sample was the reason someone later bought the shampoo. Marketers frequently include coupons or directions to an online offer. Coupons are ideal accompaniments to a mailed product sample, allowing the company to track response of the offer. The bigger challenge may be finding a workable price for product samples. The Postal Service needs to be able to find a price at which the product makes money, but is not so high as to make it unattractive to marketers.

    Still, the biggest boon to the Postal Service might be in how Product Samples increase the value of mail. You can’t send a product sample by text message or email. The Postal Service has designed Product Samples to raise awareness of its Simple Samples offering, which gives users flat-rate pricing, volume discounts, and simpler mail-preparation requirements, including no need for outer packaging. Keeping it simple should help as well.

    How do you feel about receiving samples in the mail? Are you more likely to purchase something if you have a favorable reaction to a sample? Could a resurgence of marketers using sampling techniques help improve the value of mail?

  • on Aug 19th, 2013 in Mail Processing & Transportation | 10 comments

    Alternative fueled vehicles are gaining renewed interest with the abundance of cheap, domestic natural gas. Compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles took off in the 1990s as infrastructure development surged. Service stations then declined for a decade but are now resurging. Liquefied natural gas and ethanol are other options, as is a new clean fuel called GDiesel, a combination of conventional diesel and natural gas that can be used on conventional diesel engines without modifications.

    With so many attractive options and an aging delivery fleet in need of an upgrade, the time seems ripe for the U.S. Postal Service to convert or retrofit its fleet. But a quick overhaul remains problematic given a significant hurdle: the Postal Service lacks capital to make a major investment. Another question is where the Postal Service should place its bets. Should it convert to an electric fleet or go with CNG or are the emerging hybrid technologies the way to go? Should it put all its eggs in one basket or should it convert parts of the fleet to different fuels? How does the Postal Service remain flexible enough to adapt to the best technology knowing that rapid innovation in the alternative fuel sector means the next best thing could be right around the corner?

    The Postal Service has set a target of increasing alternative fuel use in postal vehicles by 10 percent annually through 2015. It also has goals for reducing postal-vehicle petroleum use and contract transportation petroleum use by 20 percent annually in that time. In its 2012 Sustainability Report, the Postal Service notes that it continues to take proactive steps to increase the use of alternative fuels. It is testing many types of alternative fuels, including fuel cell vehicle, electric long-life vehicles, and new hybrid technologies. “Providing affordable delivery service requires our use of alternate fuels that are conveniently available and competitively priced,” the Postal Service said in the report.

    Converting or retrofitting the fleet to an alternative fuel has to make sense financially and logistically based on how the Postal Service operates. Lower fuel costs make the financial benefits of alternative fuels easier to justify. Their environmental benefits are well documented. But logistics remain an issue. If refueling stations are not conveniently or strategically located, the Postal Service has to travel further from its routes. This can affect service and costs.

    Share your thoughts on the best strategy for an alternative fuel fleet. Should the Postal Service throw in with one type of fuel or continue experimenting with a number of options? Should it set more aggressive goals for reducing its use of petroleum and increasing its alternative fuel use? Or does its financial situation limit its ability to move aggressively in those areas?

  • on Aug 12th, 2013 in Finances: Cost & Revenue | 6 comments

    Performance-based contracting lets government agencies acquire services using contracts that define what is to be achieved, not necessarily how the work is done. The idea is that contractors have the freedom to define how they will achieve the objectives, which allows them to use innovative approaches. The government benefits by receiving best-value products and services.

    Procurement professionals believe performance-based contracting makes acquisitions better by helping government procurement officials be good stewards of taxpayer dollars — which government contracting is all about. At first glance, it might appear that performance-based contracting transfers a large share of responsibility from government to contractor by requiring the contractor to come up with the actual solution to meet the government agency’s metrics. However, the government procurement official’s responsibilities are not less, they are just different. Performance-based contracting has four attributes: a statement of objectives that describes the desired outcome, measurable performance metrics, a quality assurance plan to monitor the contractor’s performance, and incentives to encourage better performance. Government officials need to be educated in methodologies and metrics to ensure success.

    The U.S. Postal Service uses performance-based contracting for some of its contracts, but not all. A recent Office of Inspector General audit found that the Postal Service does not have adequate controls to oversee performance-based contracts and it does not track this method in its data systems. Thus, it does not always take advantage of the benefits of performance-based contracting. Although officials did not track these contracts, our audit identified six performance-based contracts with incentives valued at $602 million. We also identified two additional contracts that could have been awarded as performance-based contracts but were not, even though postal policy encourages their use because of the potential benefits, such as cost reduction and revenue generation.

    The Postal Service has worked to streamline and improve its procurement process to create a more business-like approach to purchasing and to reduce purchasing costs. The performance-based contracting approach gives the Postal Service an opportunity to further the goals of streamlining and reinvention because it gives contractors more latitude for determining methods of performance, with more responsibility for performance quality.

    What do you think is the best way for the Postal Service to monitor contract performance? How should the Postal Service determine what to monitor and how frequently? What other ways could the Postal Service improve the procurement process?

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