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Saturday, April 14, 2007

The declining market for postage stamps

By Dick Hirsch
I have never before bragged about this, but I am the only person I know who buys postage stamps because I like certain of the illustrations.
Sure, I use the stamps on letters, but when I step up to the counter at the Post Office I make my purchases based solely on appearance. I want none of the most popular stamps; I prefer what the collectors call the commemoratives, the ones with images of memorable persons or events. For most people, a stamp is just a stamp, but for me, a stamp is an ornament for the letter.
At least one close relative believes I have slipped over the edge and should consider therapy. Since I don’t plan to mention any names, I’ll leave the identity of that person to your conjecture. It all started about 10 years ago, maybe longer, when the United States Postal Service, in a market driven strategy, began issuing more and more stamps, with images of cars, airplanes, Bugs Bunny and other comic strip characters, composers, ballplayers, dinosaurs, Elvis Presley and other famous Americans. I believe the real mission was to design and sell stamps that were so attractive and colorful that people would not use them, stamps that would be collected and saved.
I mention this because the USPS will be raising the price of a First Class stamp to 41 cents on May 14, up from 39 cents. That doesn’t exactly come as a shock, although the 39 cent variety had just a brief moment in the spotlight. The price went from, 37 to 39 cents just a short time ago, in January, 2006. It qualifies as negative news for most mailers, but for certain crazies it means a whole new gallery of illustrations will be developed and placed on sale in the months ahead.
Each time the rate goes up, I cannot refrain from thinking about George Washington and how he monopolized the mail for so long, with his profile on the primary 3 cent stamp. Yes, a letter went for 3 cents. That price started in 1932, up from the 2 cents which was instituted in 1919. The price of a stamp remained at 3 cents for 26 years, when, in the face of a torrent of complaints, Congress raised it to 4 cents in 1958.
But people were writing, addressing, mailing, receiving and reading more letters in those days. These days the mail is often belittled and marginalized. People deprecate it, calling it “snail mail” or “junk mail,” and seem to characterize those who depend on it as being out of tune.
Just as I was writing these lines, I was interrupted by the arrival of Bill, the mailperson on the route. It was so timely, I couldn’t resist a brief interview. I asked whether he and his co-workers were concerned about the future of their occupation, whether, with the increasing mailing costs combined with the electronic options, mail delivery people might be doomed to become relics of the past.
I suppose there are some cranky mailpersons, but I’ve never been on one of their routes. My experience has always been positive, with the mail being delivered by good-natured men and women, outdoorsy types who seem to be robust exemplars who defy the well-known challenges of wind, snow, rain, sleet and barking dogs, to complete the timely delivery of the mail.
Yes, they’re a good group, but what is their future outlook? With the use of e-mail growing with every passing week, will we still have mail and mail carriers in 10 years?
There is far less First Class mail. Hardly anybody writes a letter anymore. For less than the cost of a stamp a person can make a long distance phone call or send an e-mail. Either method provides instant gratification, because there is no waiting time for delivery via telephone and little via e-mail. More and more people are paying bills electronically, banking with their computer. This is very tough competition for the USPS, forced to raise the price of their service, which is already regarded by many as obsolete.
Bill reassured me, however, displaying my slim daily ration of mail: one first class bill, two catalogs and a piece of advertising literature in an envelope.
“We have less and less first class,” he said, “but we are being saved by the volume of the mass mailers, the advertising mail. I sure hope that will keep us busy, at least until I retire.”
You, too can help. Keep those cards and letters coming....



At 7:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You pretend that you do not know that I have always chosen stamps for their images.


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