The financially struggling U.S. Postal Service is getting creative in its efforts to cut costs.
The service rolled out a plan Wednesday to cut mail delivery on Saturdays starting in August; package delivery – a growing segment for the post office – would continue on Saturdays. The savings would amount to about $2 billion a year, officials said.
The service also is planning to open a series of village post offices in rural areas where it is phasing out regular post offices. The first of the new prototype village post offices in the Midlands is opening today in the Newberry community of Chappells. The model offers some postal services at small community stores, allowing customers to ship a package or buy stamps or a money order through store clerks. Some even would offer P.O. boxes.
“Our financial condition is urgent,” postmaster general and chief executive Patrick R. Donahoe told a press conference in Washington, as he rolled out the plan to eliminate Saturday service starting Aug. 10.
The move accentuates one of the agency’s strong points – package delivery has increased by 14 percent since 2010, officials say, while the delivery of letters and other mail has declined with the increasing use of email and other Internet services.
Under the new plan, mail would be delivered to homes and businesses only from Monday through Friday but still would be delivered to post office boxes on Saturdays. Post offices now open on Saturdays would remain open on Saturdays.
Village post offices – such as the one opening at 2 p.m. today in Horne’s General Store along S.C. 39 – are another way to trim costs while increasing services, said Harry Spratlin, spokesman for the Postal Service in most of South Carolina.
Village sites currently are planned for Lane in Williamsburg County, Green Sea in Horry County, Cameron in Calhoun County and Cassatt in Kershaw County, Spratlin said. The post service is looking in other rural areas for possible village locations, he said. If a community doesn’t have a store, village post offices could be set up in government offices or other places staffed for long periods during the day, he said.
“The plan is a way to ... continue to provide that all-important local identity that people get from having a post office,” while not incurring a financial burden, Spratlin said.
About 60 people showed up at a meeting this week in Lane to hear about plans for a village post office in that community, he said.
However, critics were quick to pan the idea of ending Saturday postal service.
It is “a disastrous idea that would have a profoundly negative effect on the Postal Service and on millions of customers,” particularly businesses, rural communities, the elderly, the disabled and others who depend on Saturday delivery for commerce and communication, said Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers.
Postal officials say the move is necessary and is supported by most Americans.
Over the past several years, the Postal Service has advocated shifting to a five-day delivery schedule for mail and packages – and has repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, appealed to Congress to approve the move. Though an independent agency, the service gets no tax dollars for its day-to-day operations but is subject to congressional control.
Congress has included a ban on five-day delivery in its appropriations bill. But because the federal government now is operating under a temporary spending measure, rather than an appropriations bill, Donahoe says it’s the agency’s interpretation that it can make the change itself.
“This is not like a ‘gotcha’ or anything like that,” he said. The agency essentially is asking Congress not to reimpose the Saturday-closing ban when the spending measure expires on March 27.
Postal Service and other research indicate nearly seven in 10 Americans support the switch to five-day delivery as a way for the Postal Service to reduce costs, the agency said.
“The Postal Service is having to change,” Columbia’s Spratlin said.
For example, in 2009, Columbia’s post office moved carriers to a central location to cut down on logistics issues and eliminate the number of supervisors and distribution it required. No layoffs have taken place, he said, with job cuts being handled through attrition.
The Postal Service also has added stamp sales at many retail locations over the years and had partnered with package carriers UPS and FedEx to deliver packages “the final mile.”
In November, the service partnered with Amazon in San Francisco to provide overnight delivery service. Spratlin said that test was very successful and would be a “shot in the arm” to the Postal Service if it is rolled out in other communities nationwide.
“All these things are just going to add up to making us a financially viable organization,” said Spratlin, whose district regularly is in the Top 10 nationally for on-time delivery.
The changes make the post office “part of the puzzle” of delivery and communication, he said. “We’re never going to be what we used to be, which was the one and only.”