YOU’VE GOT (LATE) MAIL `Cruddy’ pockets mar otherwise good service Maybe it’s the nationwide labor shortage affecting the postal workforce, or perhaps an influx of fall election mailings crowding the system. Whatever the reason, some mailers say that fall catalog delivery has suffered.

In fact, catalog delivery has averaged five to seven days slower than last year for most of the major U.S. markets, says David Hauser, executive vice president of Hicksville, NY-based mail tracking service and list firm The Hauser Group.

Hauser believes that one of the biggest problems affecting mail delivery nationwide is staff shortages. “We’re in constant contact with many destination delivery units around the country on behalf of our clients, and the common reason for delays is that they don’t have enough manpower to get the job done,” Hauser says.

Postal facilities in several of the biggest cities, such as San Francisco; Dallas; Washington; Atlanta; Richmond, VA; Charlotte, NC; Memphis, TN; and San Antonio, have had the worst catalog delivery delays this fall, Hauser says. On the other hand, post offices in Minneapolis; Cincinnati; Nashville, TN; and Pittsburgh have performed well to this point in getting catalogs delivered on time, Hauser reports.

Several catalogers and printers contacted by Catalog Age have also seen some delays with fall/holiday catalog mailings. Al Bourgeois, manager of distribution for printer Banta Catalog Group in Maple Grove, MN, says that catalog delivery overall has been worse this year than in 1999. “Last year’s delivery was almost seamless; two years ago it was cruddy. This year is also kind of cruddy. I monitor a facility condition report on the drop-ship system, and I see a lot of red – meaning that the USPS is behind schedule.”

Like Hauser, Bourgeois believes that the cause of the “cruddy” service is “the trouble the USPS is having finding casual labor” – temporary employees to help with the fall/holiday rush. “I’ve also heard there are freezes on overtime hours.”

But USPS spokesperson Gerry Kreienkamp says that no such freezes have been put in place and that the USPS has had no difficulty hiring casual workers. Furthermore, he insists that delays “are no worse than last year, which was considered a good year by mailers.” Postal operations supervisors hold biweekly teleconferences with national account managers to find out what their customers are saying, Kreienkamp says, adding, “and so far, [they’re saying] conditions are good.”

Some catalog mailers beg to differ. Michele Gilbert, vice president of marketing for New York-based food cataloger Balducci’s, says seed mailings indicated that October catalogs were delivered four to five days later than the requested in-home dates. “It limited our opportunity to mail in enough time before the election,” Gilbert says. “We could have had a three-week selling period before Election Day” instead of only a few days, she says.

Interestingly, California Style, a $50 million apparel cataloger based in Carlsbad, CA, experienced delivery problems back in August. “We were seeing seed catalogs at least five to 10 days later than the delivery time we were counting on in August,” says marketing director Aida Nunez, “but we have not noticed any drastic changes since.”

Nunez considers herself fortunate that the only serious catalog delivery delays California Style experienced came so early in the fall season. It wasn’t as critical a mailing as subsequent fall mailings are, she says. “The only problem it caused was on the staffing side, because early on you try to figure out your demand curve” and the number of people you’ll need later on to take orders, she adds.

Not everyone reporting delays A number of mailers have no complaints about fall catalog delivery. Joe Schick, director of postal affairs for Pewaukee, WI-based printer Quad/ Graphics, says the average number of days for delivery from postal sectional center facilities (SCFs) and bulk mail centers (BMCs) has stayed within the parameters of the delivery matrix that the USPS published a few years ago – an average of three to five days from SCFs and five to seven days from BMCs. “Although we wish more mail would be delivered within the `window,’ it has not gone down in percentage,” Schick says.

Clarence Banks, manager of postal and logistics analysis for printer R.R. Donnelley, says that some catalogs may have been held up a few days due to a flood of political mail shortly before Election Day. “But overall, it’s been pretty good,” he adds.

And mailers Cuddledown of Maine, Frontgate, Omaha Steaks, Cherry Tree Toys, and Mo Hotta Mo Betta/Spices Etc. have not experienced any catalog delivery delays. Cuddledown president Christopher Bradley says, “I’d probably categorize delivery as normal or what we’d expect, which is basically just a little slower than the rest of the year,” due to the heavier mailing season. “We have received reports from our printers that some pockets of the country are slower, but that’s typical.” – Additional reporting by Amanda Mark

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