Darwinism and the USPS

Many of you may not know me. I'm the numbers guy behind Spend Matters. I run Spend Matters Group (Spend Matters and MetalMiner's consulting arm) and I'm also CFO of the parent company, Azul Partners. I tend to lead and manage by the book (and as Jason says, I keep him and the rest of the team in line). When I encounter a lack of process and transparency, my head spins, and such is the case with a recent order from Amazon that the United States Postal Service (USPS) managed to truly butcher.

As background, like many of you, my family spends a small fortune with Amazon, on everything from diapers to appliances. Amazon does just about everything right for us – except choosing the USPS as a fulfillment partner. Here's an example of why Amazon should give the boot to the USPS. It's time to let Darwinism take down a shining model of logistics inefficiency whose ultimate death is forgone conclusion without continued bailouts from the Federal government.

Here's my tale after placing an order with Amazon "delivered" by the USPS. The story starts with an online tracking effort via Amazon that shows USPS attempted to deliver the package on 11/16 and 11/17 and could not. Of course this is impossible (we have 24-hour doorman and receiving room in our apartment in downtown Chicago).

Then USPS says they delivered it on the 19th, but there was no sign of the package. With this information, I decide to stop by the main post office downtown Chicago on the 20th (Tuesday of Thanksgiving week) and ask to see the supervisor after the front desk clerks proved useless.

The USPS team then gave me an inside look and sent me to the loading dock in the back. After talking to 2 or 3 mail carriers, finally I got hold of the supervisor ("Mr. A") who said that he's about to leave, and asked that I come back tomorrow morning at 8AM.

So I showed up at the loading dock at 8AM on the 21st (day before Thanksgiving) only to find out that Mr. A did not show up for work. Another carrier told me to come back after Thanksgiving. I again found myself at the loading dock (8AM on the 26th; the Monday after Thanksgiving) and another carrier tells me – I can't make this up even if I wanted to! – that Mr. A has retired.

By now, I'm livid. I asked to see Mr. A's replacement and a carrier sent me to the upstairs distribution area to find a supervisor named Mr. B. Once there, I learned that apparently I'm not supposed to upstairs under any circumstances due to Homeland Security concerns, so walking through the distribution center unescorted (and without a badge) certainly ruffled some feathers. Regardless, Mr. B heard my story, and tracked down a carrier named Mr. C, who swears up and down that he delivered the package to my building. Mr.B then asked me to wait a week until they sort it out internally (Mr. B was actually trying to be helpful).

Well, I wait a week. And there's still no package. And my calls to USPS were not returned. And I was obviously done with showing up at the dock at 8AM. Enough.

I contacted Amazon's customer service this morning – an interesting process, by the way, because there is no 800-number given on the site (only after you plug in the order number and answer a bunch of questions, the site asks you to plug in your number and press either call me now or "call me in 5 minutes" button). I pressed the "call me now" button and some lady from an Indian call center rang me exactly a second later.

I explained the story to her. She checked my accounts and saw that we have ordered a ton of stuff from Amazon in the last 10 years (and have never had issues) and promptly offered next-day delivery on replacement goods.

One call from Bangalore (Amazon): problem solved. Countless run-ins and phone calls with USPS: nothing. When interacting with USPS employees on US soil, I felt like I was chatting with zombies – folks with zero initiative or incentive who are just waiting to retire. Amazon, on the other hand, leveraged technology and a friendly, low-cost Indian customer service center and solved the problem in five minutes, thus keeping me as a loyal customer at the end of the day.

It's time to retire the USPS – let alone all the workers waiting for that government pension who can't be bothered to put customers first.

- Richard Lee

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Voices (18)

  1. Jill Jackson:

    Hope all you negative USPS commenters read all the comments from the USPS carriers which are so true..we are not Government supported, 99% of mail carriers take our jobs seriously and go beyond our service to please our customers. When I started 20 years ago I was told whenever I went to a door for a certified signature, etc….to take notice of things…so when the customer complains that you didn’t attempt the delivery, you have some proof…at the time, I was surprised to hear that, but I never forgot that tip…and now you see why. Yes, we make mistakes..we are human…all employees everywhere do…but 99% of us do our best for our customers…you, the non-postal community don’t realize what we deal with on a daily basis…wrong addresses/names/bad forwards/etc. that we detectively figure out…cars, garbage cans, piles of leaves that we have to maneuver around or get out to deliver your mail, dogs that we don’t know if they’ll bite and when owners say they won’t…they do…this is a stressful job, that is not easy and has become harder due to cutbacks on our standards to make up for congress making the usps pay ahead for the pensions.

  2. Ron Ruchtie:

    I’m a Letter Carrier that works at a Branch Station out of Youngstown Ohio. Last week a customer called my Supervisor saying her package was scanned delivered but she did not get it. She was on the phone at the time, I told the Supervisor to tell her I put it at the door inside her garage. The lady called back to say she checked and it was not there. I went to the house within a half hour to discover no one was home. This lady then called back in a few hours to tell the Supervisor a neighbor brought the package over. I again went to the house to find no one home again. Obviously the customer lied as she was never home to check where this package was left or to receive from neighbor. In addition I identified the interior of the garage to my Supervisor. Within a few days, I delivered another package to the same house in the garage….the same garage!

  3. Liam Skye:

    Thomas Kase: The Bloomberg article does not refer to a payment against their credit line at the Treasury. It refers to the statutorily-required prepayment into the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefit Fund, which would add to its current assets in that fund of around $46 billion. The fund will be used at some time in the future to pay health benefits for postal retirees who have not yet been born, but Congress requires its postal cash cow to chunk it in today so they can squander the money today on wasteful programs and stick the future taxpayers with paying for those benefits in the future.

    In 2006, USPS had exactly $0 debt. It has had to use its borrowing authority to make those prepayments required by the law, depositing the borrowed money immediately back into that Treasury account, where it is reported as "revenue" in the unified federal budget and immediately spent by Congress. More than $13 billion of the $15 billion USPS has been forced to borrow has been deposited right back into this Treasury account. This Congressional accounting gimmick is known as "debt monetization" – Congress sells debt (Treasury bonds) to USPS and reports the resulting cash as "revenue." The offsetting debt that created that phony "revenue" is hidden in the USPS’ balance sheet which is not part of the unified federal budget! So USPS gets a debt of $15 billion and $15 billion in interest-bearing Treasury bonds and Congress gets $15 billion with which to enrich its members and their cronies. The forgotten string attached to the magic money is that the future taxpayers will have to cash those bonds in the future when USPS retirees need health benefit covered that they have already paid for!

    When Bernie Madoff reports revenue and hides liabilities he goes to prison for life. When Congress reports revenue and hides liabilities they get rich and the American people’s finest in the world postal service gets destroyed financially.

  4. Richard Lee:

    All – appreciate your views and comments. My rant has served its purpose… To Al and Richie – please keep up the the good work. In fairness, I did fail to mention that Mr. B cared enough to give me his cell number, and another carrier (let’s call him Mr. D) did actually call me to say that my package is lost after I met him at the loading dock. By the way Al, no issue with Mr. A retiring obviously – just annoyed that he asked me to come back knowing that he was not going to be in… To Ms. C (our regular carrier who was on vacation when the package was lost), nothing but love here young lady. You do an awesome job year after year – hope you are enjoying holiday wine from the Lee family. Lastly in case you were wondering, still no sign of the original package that I promised Amazon I’d send back if it shows up… Happy holidays all 🙂

  5. Thomas Kase:

    Liam: read this Bloomberg entry for info on the missed payments (plural): http://mobile.bloomberg.com/news/2012-07-31/postal-service-to-miss-5-5-billion-payment-to-u-s-treasury.html

    "The U.S. Postal Service affirmed it won’t make a required $5.5 billion payment due tomorrow to the U.S. Treasury"

    It is clear, however, that there is something odd about the pension obligations and their funding level – that the USPS and Congress can’t sort this out is another indication that there is something fundamentally wrong with the current setup.

  6. Liam Skye:

    Thomas Kase: You are fundamentally mistaken in your comment. USPS is required to do all its "banking" with the US Treasury (with the exception of the initial deposits into its commercial bank accounts, which are then transferred to the federal reserve). USPS currently has around $326 billion in its various pension and benfit accounts and has a loan for $15 billion. Your assertion that this is a "subsidy" is bizarre. Your claim that they have missed payments against that loan is flat wrong. USPS has never missed a payment on that loan.

  7. Liam Skye:

    Well, at least they were courteous enough to patronize another clown who thinks it is possible to go rooting around looking for a single piece of mail among the billions of them in the system at any given time.

  8. Al:

    I understand this is a rant column so you needed to find something to rant about. A few things stand out that make me think that you are exaggerating to make the story "better" First off, it is not the policy of USPS to make multiple attempts to deliver your package. One attempt and a notice is left if not able to deliver. You can then go and pick up at the post office or call, or go online to schedule a re-delivery. You don’t state that is what you did. Second you went to the post office and when the "front desk clerks proved useless", you asked to see the supervisor, they let you inside on the workroom floor??? Really, the public is not allowed inside the work area or loading dock, unless maybe you were there on a school field trip. You come back the next day and go right to the loading dock to talk to the carriers, why not go through the front doors like all the other customers do, you again should not have been allowed anywhere else in the building. You say that ruffled some feathers, and I bet it did. Mr A retired, big deal, people retire everyday. About the tracking scans, the supervisor should have been able to tell who scanned the packages, the scanners are assigned to the person using it.
    You state you have "odered a ton of stuff from Amazon in the last 10 years (and have never had issues)" many of those packages undoubtedly delivered by by the USPS that you want to see disappear. If USPS disappears, then where will UPS and Fed Ex drop the packages that they personally don’t want to deliver, they currently make daily stops with packages for USPS to deliver. And why is that, because USPS goes to every address regardless if it is profitable or not. Who is going to deliver that package addressed to "Grandma" who lives in a multi-unit apartment building. Unfortunately the sender didn’t put which apartment "grandma" lives in. Who is going to help the UPS driver when they get a package that has a non existent address, the letter carrier because they know the names of their customers and where they live. I am a 23 year carrier with the USPS and those are just a couple examples of what I see, especially in this busy holiday season. And yes, I do help the UPS driver once in a while, I see him on a daily basis. He is the "competition, but ultimately the customer is what really matters.

  9. Megan Downing:

    Hooray for Amazon for providing excellent customer service. I am amazed that you did not contact Amazon sooner. You say "One call from Amazon: problems solved. Countless run-ins and phone calls with USPS: nothing." Well duh. Amazon has the ability to reship your package. USPS has no stock of your items and no ability to do that. THey look for it, the check the shipping record, and they inform you. You have no way of proving your package was not delivered, stolen, etc. Clearly it was missing in action, and contacting Amazon was the correct next step.

    While your experience is clearly frustrating and regrettable, I am sincerely amazed that you believe this one instance is enough to vilify an entire service and blatantly insult some very hard workers based on your single experience.

    Hooray that you have a public forum. Boo that you believe yourself high enough in the evolutionary ladder that you can abuse the entire USPS in your own personal "Friday Rant" public forum.

    My guess, in those years of shopping with Amazon, you’ve had other USPS delivered packages that arrived uneventfully and on time. You probably took those on-time deliveries for granted. That’s to be expected. In light of your single frustrating event, I think they are also worthy of reflection.

    If you truly are a numbers guy, go check some stats on just how many pieces of mail are processed nightly. In the mass of these processed items, it is regrettable that you had a bad experience. But, it’s hardly worthy of trashing the entire postal service and insulting all of its workers.

    Switching gears here … I have to say that I’m also amazed at the uninformed nature of some of the public replies to your rant.

  10. Richie:


  11. CNC Clerk:

    If you were the Mail carrier, and had delivered the package, and the doorman or whoever stole it, what could you have done to help the customer? There is no way to locate the package. If the carrier made a mistake as occasionally happens, we are at the mercy of whoever got it to return it. If it was delivered to your building, and your doorman out it down where it got covered by a bunch of old newspapers, and he forgot to give it to you, what do you expect the carrier to do? Do you expect your money back? The package apparently wasn’t insured, and all they have is your word that you didn’t get it. Not enough to justify discipline against the carrier, or expectations he pay off on his mistake. People don’t send every package requiring a signature, they rely on the carriers word that if he scanned it delivered, he did deliver it.

  12. Jack:

    The Post Office has been borrowing to prepay retirees health benefits. They are federally mandated to prepay the next 75 years within 10 years. They haven’t had operational losses till the last couple of years. I am a small business owner and us the post office frequently. It simply is the most cost effective option for me and any downgrade in service will hurt.

  13. Thomas Kase:


    Since the USPS draws on a credit line from the Treasury, it is nothing short of sophistry to not call that a subsidy.

    Additionally, since the USPS has skipped payments to that credit line, what would you call that other than a subsidy – although technically it could be called bankruptcy of course.

    I think Richard was calling out the ineptitude of the USPS more than anything else. It is clear that they have not rightsized themselves to their current business environment, and we can’t keep kicking the postal can down the road.

  14. Jason Busch:

    Is a protected monopoly on first class and bulk mail not a subsidy? Hmmm…

    BTW … my uncle (a former postal service employee) recently retired with what I believe to be a standard government pension.

  15. Ed:

    There is a lot of ignorance here about USPS and its employees. First, USPS does not receive Federal subsidies, hasn’t since 1984.
    All revenue is from postage and retail sales.
    Second, most postal employees are on a 401K type retirement plan(Thrift Savings Plan) not Civil Service. The post office dropped out of Civil Service retirement in 1984.

  16. Thomas Kase:

    To ‘jason’ – good catch about the anecdotal first-hand experience, you’ll be glad to hear that Richard will submit his peer-reviewed double-blind analysis covering 25 USPS facilities in both the Chicago and Kansas (randomly selected) areas as part of next week’s follow-up.

    Seriously though, you must have missed that this is a rant, and those are meant to have a personal heart-felt touch to them. I think Richard accomplished this quite well.

    USPS is walking dead, put it to rest, maybe that will give my mailbox a reprieve from all the junk mail that makes up the bulk of my non-parcel deliveries.

  17. what's my benefit ...:

    The USPS has become a jobs program, nothing more. Reminds me of the British sitcom "Waiting for G-D". Do these people have anything better to do than wait for that public pension check?

  18. jason:

    I’ve had similar experiences with UPS and I’ve also had problems with Fedex but USPS has always done a great job for me. Your article is anecdotal and dripping with stupidity

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