Postal customers took fewer trips to the Post Office this past holiday season but that doesn’t mean they spent less on postal products. They just conducted more business through alternative channels, such as online at USPS.com and self-service kiosks. Over the 2013 holiday season, transactions at brick-and-mortar post offices were down 8 percent compared to last year, but transactions through alternative access were up 17 percent, postal officials reported.
The movement to online postage transactions certainly mirrors the larger societal shift toward e-commerce and mobile commerce. But the big shift over the holidays to alternative access could also be the result of reduced hours at some post offices. Customers will shop where they find it most convenient, and in some locations post offices are opened only a few hours a day. This certainly makes Village Post Offices and contract postal units, self-service kiosks, and online purchasing more attractive. Many of these options are available 24 hours a day.
The U.S. Postal Service recognizes that it needs to be where people find it most convenient to buy postage or other mailing services. The Postmaster General stated as much at the recent Mailers’ Technical Advisory Committee meeting when addressing alternative access, including the Postal Service’s decision to partner with Staples. But alternative access retail options have limitations, which if not addressed could frustrate customers and leave some money on the table.
Our recent audit of self-service kiosks found that customers are not using kiosks as much as anticipated for a few reasons: they sometimes are located in hidden parts of the lobby; kiosk signage is not always visible; and lobby assistants are not always available or fully trained to help customers help themselves. In addition, self-service kiosks are generally housed in retail outlets with the highest mail volume, primarily urban and suburban areas. Low-traffic retail outlets, often in rural areas, get a double whammy. They are not likely to have a kiosk and their Post Office hours are reduced.
How can the Postal Service ensure that customers receive suitable services while reining in operating costs? Does the Postal Service need more self-service kiosks, or should it redistribute the 2,500 now in service? What incentives might the Postal Service offer merchants to house Village Post Offices? Or should the Postal Service restore hours to its own post offices, even those that are not profitable?