• 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?

  • on Aug 5th, 2013 in Delivery & Collection | 2 comments

    Global e-commerce sales topped $1 trillion for the first time in 2012 and they are expected to grow another 19 percent this year, according to data from research firm eMarketer.com. While North America leads the world in online sales, Asia is expected to take the mantle by the end of this year. China drives Asia’s growth and this year it should surpass Japan as the world’s second largest e-commerce behind the United States and its $385 billion in online sales.

    This global boom in e-commerce has helped to fuel growth in the package delivery market, prompting the shipping giants, including the U.S. Postal Service, to jostle for shares of this market. The global e-commerce surge has also benefited American companies, who are looking to foreign customers to expand sales and revenues. Surprisingly, a number of well-known retailers only began offering international shipping from their websites a few years ago, including Macy’s, Williams Sonoma, J. Crew, and Crate and Barrel. One reason for the late entry is that shipping beyond the United States is not so simple. As a New York Times article noted last year, the problems include customs, addressing, and postal and shipping fees. In some cases, the cost to ship the package could double the total cost of the order.

    Another hurdle is package returns. Even as retailers figure out how best to reach their overseas customers, they are discovering that customers find it difficult to return packages. The Postal Service recognized an opportunity to simplify that process for online retailers and later this month it will begin a market test of a new international e-commerce return service. International Merchandise Return Service will allow foreign consumers to return unwanted products purchased from American retailers’ websites back to the U.S. The service creates return labels with postage payment, allowing the buyer to print off a label and return the item through the post.

    Modeled after its domestic returns service, the Postal Service expects International Merchandise Return Service to simplify international returns for customers and improve their overall experience, which should encourage even more online shopping. The Postal Service will test the service for 2 years on online sales to Canada and Australia, negotiating prices and agreements with American companies that participate.

    What other ways could the Postal Service improve the international shipping experience for retailers and their customers? How else could the Postal Service tap into the global e-commerce market? Do any of its domestic services provide good templates or lend themselves to adoption for the international market?

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