• on Jan 26th, 2015 in Pricing & Rates | 4 comments

    Steve Jobs was famous for the ingenious simplicity of his designs. And, of course, his single button iPhone, now the standard in smart phoning, is a great testament to the value of simplicity.

    As in design, simplicity in pricing, and a related simplicity of choices, are appealing to consumers. There is even empirical evidence that consumers will buy more when they aren’t overwhelmed with too much clutter and too many choices.

    The U.S. Postal Service has enjoyed some success with simple pricing. The best example is the Flat Rate Box. The combination of uncomplicated messaging – “If it fits, it ships” – and ease of use – a handful of shape offerings, each with a single price attached to it – have made the Flat Rate Box a critical piece of the Postal Service’s growing package business.

    And so far, the Postal Service is sticking primarily with weight-based pricing for packages, and not introducing any further dimensional (DIM) weight package rates. FedEx and UPS both just moved to the more-difficult-to-calculate DIM weight pricing scheme on ground shipments.

    Still, most Postal Service pricing is far from simple. There were 8,779 different package prices alone in fiscal year 2014, up 22 percent from two years earlier. Of that total, a quarter are retail prices and three-quarters are commercial prices. Furthermore, nearly 1,100 Parcel Select prices are not used, and 5,840 prices for packages weighing more than 20 pounds are never or rarely used. We recently looked at package pricing at the Postal Service and found its complexity might intimidate customers. We urged the organization to consider eliminating prices that are rarely or never used. We also suggested periodic evaluation of market demand to see if it makes sense to introduce other Flat Rate products.

    But, it’s also worth considering whether pricing can be too simple, at least for commercial customers. While individuals welcome pricing that’s easy to calculate, businesses that ship large volumes can benefit from a range of options, which gets them closer to customized pricing. It also helps them shave off every possible penny of shipping expenses. And, of course, some degree of complexity is necessary so prices appropriately reflect costs. Such is the case with zoned rates for Priority Mail, because packages traveling across regions or zones cost more to deliver than those moving within a zone.

    So, turns out pricing simplicity may not be quite that simple.

    Do the Postal Service’s pricing options meet your shipping needs? Do you find pricing too complex? Or, do you wish there were more options? Should the Postal Service introduce more Flat Rate Box or other specialty packaging items? 

  • on Jun 16th, 2014 in Ideas Worth Exploring | 6 comments

    Earn more or spend less. Those are the two basic ways to achieve financial fitness, whether you’re talking about the household budget or a multi-billion-dollar corporate balance sheet.

    And that’s what it comes down to for the U.S. Postal Service as it seeks to bring revenue in line with expenses (it lost $5 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2013). So far, the Postal Service has been looking at cost cutting ideas like moving to 5-day mail delivery to changing employee benefits to consolidating networks.

    It’s also been trying to grow revenue, most notably in the package delivery business. But are there some unexplored opportunities to generate income, particularly by taking advantage of one of the Postal Service’s greatest assets – its last mile delivery network?

    We asked that question in a previous blog entry and explored it in more detail in a recent audit report, Delivery Operations – Additional Carrier Services. We came up with nearly two dozen ideas – everything from monitoring services for the elderly and collection of air quality details on delivery vehicles to traffic reporting services and dry cleaning delivery. While these ideas should be explored, most would involve significant financial investments, additional training, and changes to core hours or labor agreements. Also, the 2006 postal law prohibits the Postal Service from offering any new services that aren’t postal in nature.

    But the Postal Service could move relatively quickly to add one new, albeit modest, moneymaker: advertising on postal vehicles. The agency has dipped its toe into similar waters by co-branding with Sony Pictures to promote Priority Mail and “The Amazing Spider Man-2” on mail trucks. But it could also sell space on its vehicles to promote products unrelated to mail.

    On the other hand, even with all those delivery vans, the Postal Service estimates revenue opportunities would be limited to only about $30 million in FY 2015. That’s because advertising would likely be profitable only in densely populated areas and the Postal Service would carefully select advertisers that don’t compromise its trusted brand.

    Should the Postal Service look at every opportunity to raise revenue by leveraging its last mile delivery force or should carriers stick to delivering the mail? What about advertising? Would the postal brand be tarnished if delivery vehicles promoted nonpostal products or is this a worthwhile opportunity to raise much-needed revenue? 

  • on May 26th, 2014 in Labor | 8 comments

    Offering workplace benefits such as health and retirement programs and paid vacations is a well established way to attract and retain talented workers. But the structure of these offerings has been changing in the public and private sectors over the past 20 to 30 years for several reasons, including rising pension debts; a more mobile workforce; and a move towards simplified administration of benefits.

    Employers have been looking to shed excessive pension expenses and give workers more control over their own retirement programs. Increasingly, private, local, and state employers are moving away from defined benefits plans that generally pay a guaranteed sum based on wages and years of service. They are increasingly favoring defined contribution plans, such as the 401(k) plan, a pretax fund built on employee and employer contributions. Meanwhile, retirement benefits plans for federal workers, including postal employees, have generally remained unchanged since the Federal Employees Retirement System was enacted in 1987.

    Similarly, the U.S. Postal Service’s leave benefits have stayed primarily the same for decades. Days off are organized into categories – annual, personal, sick, military (if applicable), and federal holiday – and the rate of leave accrual depends on the category. When taking leave, a postal employee has to indicate which category the leave falls into. But many companies are moving toward fewer categories, such as just vacation days and sick days. This simplified approach cuts down on administrative costs.

    As the Postal Service looks for ways to tighten its belt, it is considering changes in benefits, such as a new retirement program for future workers. But it is in a bit of a Catch-22. It is required to offer compensation and benefits that are comparable to those in the private sector, but it cannot change its benefits programs unilaterally, due to legal requirements and union agreements.

    At the request of the Postal Service, we issued two white papers that benchmarked its benefit programs against those of several comparable organizations. Specifically, we looked at retirement benefits and leave policies. We found many similarities in benefit offerings, but key differences, too. For example, retirement expenses make up a larger portion of total benefits for the Postal Service than for the other organizations we studied. Also, postal employees can carry over 55 or more days of annual leave each leave year and an unlimited number of sick days. But the other organizations had far more restrictive leave carryover.

    Share your thoughts or experiences on leave programs that consolidate all days off into one comprehensive plan. Might such a program for postal employees offer flexible benefits while reducing costs? Or does the current system work well? What changes, if any, are needed to the Postal Service’s retirement plans? 

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