Modern Highwaymen


USPS to its customers: Stand and Deliver.

In 2002 the United States Postal Service was plagued with problems associated with the Culture of Fear that our federal government was so carefully and deliberately fostering. A fearful public was a big advantage in promoting the war in Iraq, and mandatory for full implementation of the PATRIOT act. Not to mention– some home-grown vandal/terrorist was mailing anthrax to public officials, and another thought it was great fun to blow up rural mailboxes. The entire nation was on the verge of panic. In a bid to reassure the public, the Post Office combined the popular “United We Stand” slogan with their own “We deliver for you,” and came up with “UNITED WE STAND AND DELIVER FOR AMERICA.”

The new slogan was quick to appear on banners at Post Offices all over the country, and some are still in place today, almost a decade later. But it is increasingly difficult to read the banner without seeing a third, and ancient, expression right in the middle: “Stand and deliver!” Yes, our beloved Post Office is channeling a 17th Century highwayman. “Stand and Deliver” has had more benign meanings in recent years, but the primary meaning is the “stock phrase used by highwaymen” and it is ironically appropriate now for a Post Office that is no longer a service. The United States Postal “Service” is now a quasi-governmental corporation that thinks it will lose less money if it steals from its customers by deliberately tricking them into paying much more for postage than is necessary. It’s one thing to “up-sell” customers to a higher standard of service. It’ something else again to charge them a higher fee for exactly the same service!

How can they do that? They dazzle you with smoke and mirrors in a multi-million dollar advertising campaign: “If it fits, it ships…. for one low flat rate.” Slick, catchy, and effective. But it’s wrong, three ways. Several of the flat-rate options have weight restrictions, so it is quite possible that it will fit, but it won’t ship. But a bigger problem is that there are lots and lots of “flat rates,” not just one. The third and biggest lie is that it’s a “low” rate. Often the rate will be substantially higher than it would be if the customer used an ordinary, non flat-rate box. That sounds complicated, and it is. It’s the complexities and misdirections that allow the USPS to get away with what would be called fraud in any other industry.

And ironically, there most recent, expensive ad campaign focuses on the flat rate envelope. Wouldn’t it be great if they had one? Well, that flat rate envelope was the very first flat rate product, and it’s been available for over a decade.

Here’s how the flat rate scam works. You want to mail a jacket to your brother who lives about 30 miles away. You take it to the Post Office and ask the window clerk for one of those “low flat rate boxes” for it. The clerk tells you he can give you a medium sized flat rate Priority Mail box, free, and the postage charge is $10.95 regardless of how much it weighs or how far it is going within the US and territories.

Hopefully you have done your homework, and you say “No, thanks. I’d like a free Priority Mail Box No. 4, please.” The jacket weighs 1 Lb 3 Oz, and the ordinary Priority Mail Postage for it is…. wait for it… $5.20. That “one low flat rate” doesn’t look all that low, now, does it? You just saved yourself $5.75, or put it another way you stopped the Post Office from stealing $5.75 from you. That’s what we call “highway robbery,” but without the courtesy of a “stand and deliver,” announcement. It’s just plain sneaky.

In all fairness, the example above is about as extreme as we could come up with, but for the most part the difference is in degree, not kind. Almost any time you use a USPS Flat Rate Priority Mail Box you will be paying more postage than if you use an ordinary box. A local internet-based business ships 20-30 priority mail packages a day. They weigh between 1 and 3 pounds, and are mailed in free Priority Mail boxes. A “flat rate” box is less expensive at a rate of perhaps one a day, and that’s because they use the “Regional Flat Rate Box A” which is available only to online shippers.

When it started in the early 1990s, Priority Mail was marketed as “2 Lbs, 2 Days, 2 Dollars.”
Now even a 14 ounce package is “zoned” or charged a variable rate depending on the distance it travels– unless you use a flat rate box. But if it fits, it ships, right? For “one low flat rate.” Sounds simple when you put it that way, but what it amounts to is that you are paying, a lot, to avoid having to figure out the actual postage cost.
And where did they get this “one low flat rate” from? The US Postal Service offers no fewer than nine flat rate boxes and envelopes for Priority Mail (not counting two more that you can’t get at the Post Office), and there are at least six different postage costs (your one low flat rate).

There are seven more flat rate boxes/rates if you are shipping to an APO or FPO address (military mail).

Shipping overseas? Using Canada as an example, we find eleven different “flat rate” boxes and envelopes (International Priority Mail).

Count ’em, folks– that’s a total of twenty-nine different flat rate boxes and envelopes, with 15 or 20 different postage rates, depending on how you count them. So much for “one low flat rate.” Actually the number of rates is almost double that, because you can get a discount for using an online service like the Post Office’s “Click ‘n’ Ship” or Stamps.com.

Anybody can go to the Postal Service’s web site and look at the nearly infinite variety of postage rates and destinations.

Several of these clearly marked “flat rate” boxes have restrictions on what you can put in them, so you can’t even say for sure that if it fits, it ships!

The USPS has spent millions of dollars on radio and TV advertising for its “if it fits, it ships” campaign, and guess what– it seems to be working at least to the extent that some of the more popular flat rate boxes seem to be in short supply. Which begs the question, just how ignorant are the Postal Service’s customers? But a better question might be, “When did it become acceptable for the US Postal Service to deliberately cheat its customers?”

–SG

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