• on Dec 8th, 2014 in Mail Processing & Transportation | 7 comments

    Turns out the U.S. Postal Service isn’t just about collecting and delivering mail. It also has an essential role in the middle. Sorting and long-haul transporting, that is.

    That may run counter to the arguments of those who believe the Postal Service could be more efficient if it focused only on collecting and delivering mail (also known as first mile and last mile) and let private companies take over sorting and long-distance transporting (the middle mile). The argument has gained traction among some stakeholders and observers, but our new white paper – The First and Last Mile Strategy: A Critical Assessment  – says the opposite may be true.

    With the Postal Service beset by financial challenges, anything that might improve efficiency and the bottom line merits consideration. But outsourcing mail processing would be a pretty radical measure, not to be taken lightly. That’s why we asked Dr. John Panzar, a noted expert in postal economics, to look at the economic implications of the Postal Service completely abandoning mail processing and focusing exclusively on collection and delivery. We asked him to look only at letters and flats because parcels constitute a different market.

    Dr. Panzar developed a theoretical model based on key economic principles and found that overall efficiency would likely decrease should private companies take over the middle mile. Mailing costs, in turn, would likely go up for postal customers. The only winners would be the companies sorting and transporting the mail, but their combined gains would be less than the losses to the Postal Service and customers. Simply put, the Postal Service’s participation in mail processing is necessary for overall efficiency.

    Like all theoretical models, Dr. Panzar’s relies heavily on particular assumptions that are open to challenge. Still, his intriguing conclusions invite thoughtful discussion and debate. So, what do you think? Should outsourcing the middle mile be studied further? Do Dr. Panzar’s findings surprise you? What other ways could the Postal Service gain efficiencies? 

  • on Jul 28th, 2014 in Mail Processing & Transportation | 84 comments

    What should the postal vehicle of the future look like? The U.S. Postal Service recently put that question to its carriers and vehicle maintenance personnel and is currently reviewing the feedback. It’s an important question because the delivery fleet is aging and the Postal Service needs to quickly replace it. In fact, our recent audit on the topic found the current fleet can only meet delivery needs through fiscal year 2017 – and that assumes no unexpected decrease in vehicle inventory or increase in the number of motorized routes.

    About 142,000 long-life vehicles (LLVs) out of the 190,000-vehicle total delivery fleet are near or have exceeded their expected service life. Replacing these aging vehicles is daunting, particularly given the Postal Service’s financial constraints.

    But fleet replacement isn’t just a major challenge; it’s also a big opportunity. Because the LLVs are up to 27 years old, they aren’t as fuel efficient as newer models. They also lack many of the safety features now considered standard for vehicle fleets, such as back-up cameras, front airbags, and anti-lock brakes. The next generation of vehicles can incorporate the latest safety and environmental bells and whistles, which will protect employees, cut down on fuel costs, and help the Postal Service meet its sustainability goals. Also, given the growth in packages, new vehicle designs could address the challenges of larger and irregularly shaped items.

    The Postal Service has a short- and long-term vehicle fleet acquisition strategy, but we found the plan lacks details such as vehicle specifications and green technology features. Also, despite 3 years of effort, the plan has not been approved or fully funded due primarily to the Postal Service’s lack of capital. Given the urgent need to upgrade the fleet, we are encouraging the Postal Service to make some incremental purchases while formalizing a more specific long-term plan for the next generation of LLVs.

    What are your thoughts on future postal vehicles? What should they look like? What safety and environmental features or other technologies would you like the Postal Service to add? 

  • on Jan 27th, 2014 in Mail Processing & Transportation | 3 comments

    It’s back to the future for the requirement that all letter and flat automation mailings be Full-Service Intelligent Mail barcode (IMb) compliant to obtain discounts. Mailers were expecting implementation this week of the Full-Service requirement, but the U.S. Postal Service pushed back the date until 2015 because the Postal Regulatory Commission ruled that the mandate constituted a price increase that would have busted the inflation-based price cap.

    Many mailers welcomed the delay, as few felt the entire industry – the Postal Service included – was ready for full-service, which included the requirement that barcodes keep their unique sequence of numbers for at least 45 days before the barcode sequence is used again. A number of large mailers have been Full-Service IMb compliant for months and have taken advantage of the benefits of IMbs, including tracking of service performance, identifying bottlenecks, and coordinating follow-up marketing efforts. But many mid-sized and smaller mailers were not ready for the added requirements, which include electronic submission of postage statements and use of unique IMbs on trays and containers. And concerns were growing that the Postal Service’s systems are not yet capable of handling the expected increase in IMb data.

    The Office of Inspector General raised similar concerns in a fall audit report. In particular, we found the Postal Service had fallen short in developing a comprehensive plan for the continued development and use of IMb data. Notably, the Postal Service’s plans around the use of IMb data have grown considerably since its original vision of the program and it has not taken into account the needs of all mailers. The Postal Service needs to upgrade its data storage capabilities and data systems to accommodate the growing use of IMbs and to support stakeholders’ needs.

    The silver lining in this delay could be that it gives the Postal Service another year to develop a comprehensive IMb data plan that includes detailed input from all business users and identifies costs and milestones for the life of the IMb program. It also gives mailers more time to get ready, while letting those already in the Full-Service IMb program keep their modest discounts.

    • Share your thoughts on the Full-Service IMb and the delayed implementation date.
    • Do you think another year will make a difference in the readiness of mailers? Of the Postal Service’s systems?
    • What incentives would you like to see to encourage smaller mailers to make the conversion to Full-Service IMb?
    • If you are already Full-Service compliant, what value do you get from the program? 

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