Junk Mail Keeps the Post Office Alive

These are tough times for the U.S. Postal Service. It's being pummeled by high fuel costs. The soft economy is crimping the overall volume of mail, which fell 5.5 percent in the past year. Its business is also falling as Americans opt for e-mail over birthday cards and thank-you notes. Now comes another threat: consumers like Colleen Plimpton of Bethel, Conn. Earlier this year Plimpton became tired of the credit-card offers, catalogs and advertising fliers that clogged her mailbox. So in February she paid $20 to GreenDimes, a firm that helps consumers reduce their inflow of "junk mail" by contacting businesses on their behalf. "[Junk mailers] are cutting down trees willy-nilly, and that has got to stop," says Plimpton.

To the post office, consumers like her are a serious threat. "Efforts to convince people not to receive mail are really going to hurt," says Steve Kearney, a Postal Service senior vice president.

The Postal Service lost $1.1 billion in its latest quarter. That number would be even larger if it weren't for direct mailings, which now constitute 52 percent of mail volume, up from 38 percent in 1990. Revenue from direct mail "is the financial underpinning of the Postal Service—it could not survive without it," says Michael Coughlin, former deputy postmaster.

But 89 percent of consumers say in polls that they'd prefer not to receive direct-marketing mail; 44 percent of it is never opened. That's why 19 state legislatures have debated Do Not Mail lists, which would function just like the federal Do Not Call list. But partly due to opposition from postal workers, not a single bill has passed. When Colorado state Rep. Sara Gagliardi held a public meeting on a bill she was sponsoring, she was surprised when a crowd of postal workers showed up to express vehement opposition.

Both the Postal Service and the Direct Marketing Association say direct mail is a key source of customers for small businesses. "Advertising mail is a very valuable product to many consumers," says Sam Pulcrano, Postal Service vice president for sustainability, who points to two-for-one pizza coupons as especially welcome surprises. To blunt opposition, the DMA recently launched the Mail Moves America coalition to lobby against the restrictions.

GreenDimes founder Pankaj Shah isn't sympathetic. Not only is his company providing a service to consumers, he says, but it has also used its fees to plant more than 1 million trees. "We're all about giving consumers choice, not about bringing down the post office," he says. Still, as more consumers opt out of junk mail, rain, sleet and gloom of night may seem like the least of mail carriers' problems.

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