Does America need a Postal Service?

The fact is that the primary beneficiary of the United States Postal Service today is arguably the advertisers whose leaflets and catalogs flood our mailboxes. First-class mail — items like bills and letters that require a 44-cent stamp — fell 6.6 percent in 2010 alone, continuing a five-year-long plunge. Last year was the first time that fewer than 50 percent of bills in the United States were paid by mail. There were 9.3 billion pounds of “standard mail” — the low-cost postage category available to mass advertisers — but only 3.7 billion of first-class mail.

In fact, to compensate for projected declines in “real” mail, the Postal Service has been aggressively promoting the use of new services for advertisers like Every Door Direct, which allows local retailers to place unaddressed promotional material in every mailbox in an area for pennies a piece, with a few clicks of a mouse.

“One could argue that the real customer of the Postal Service is now the direct mailer; it is a channel for advertising,” said Chuck Teller, founder of Catalog Choice, an online service in Berkeley, Calif., that helps people get their names off catalog mailing lists; this requires submitting the customer numbers on unwanted catalogs that arrive in the mailbox, one by one. And the problem is not just annoyance. Direct-mail advertising generates an estimated 10 billion pounds of waste each year, costing cities an estimated $1 billion to dispose of it, according to Catalog Choice…

But to cover its costs, the post office needs to keep mail volume high. And even some high-end direct mailers worry that the contents of American mailboxes are coming to resemble a paper infomercial. “The post office has to make sure the signal-to-noise ratio remains high — if TV was all commercials no one would watch,” said Hamilton Davison, executive director of the American Catalog Mailers Association.