Plain speaking about the Postal Service

Eschew obfuscation: That’s an ironic instruction long beloved by journalism teachers. In plain English, it means…well, to speak in plain English.

Clearly the folks at the U.S. Postal Service never took any journalism classes. Either that or they simply don’t want us to understand their proposed rate case.

Let’s start with the initial May 3 press release with which the USPS announced its proposal. “Postal Service Seeks Price Adjustments,” read the headline. “Adjustments” suggests that prices are being tweaked and that while some may be going up, others may be coming down. (In fact, one of the dictionary definitions of “adjustment” is “lowering of price, as of damaged or soiled goods.”) So far I haven’t read anything in the USPS literature — and I use the term “literature” very loosely — stating that any prices are going down. Call a rate hike a rate hike, guys.

I’m not going to dump on the Postal Service for raising prices so soon after January’s 5.4% increase. Energy costs have soared, postal reform has stalled on Capitol Hill, there’s that escrow to fund…I get it. What I don’t get is why the “adjustments” being sought are so damned complicated.

As our article on page 7 (“Making sense of the postal rate case”) explains, one of the changes is the revision of the sortation level structure. Currently there are five sortation levels — five varying rates that depend on how much presorting you do. Might the USPS be simplifying the structure as part of the adjustments? Nah; it’s adding four more tiers, bringing the total of sortation levels to nine.

Worse, the printers and other industry professionals who spoke to reporters John Fischer and Jim Tierney for the story said that the USPS hadn’t yet clarified to them exactly how all these tiers will break out. “We’re still waiting for more information from the Postal Rate Commission,” said one printer.

“A lot of creativity has gone into these rate recommendations,” Bob Pederson, the Postal Service’s acting chief financial officer, told us. Apparently a lot of creativity went into Enron’s SEC filings too. Creativity’s not always something to brag about.

I’d like to believe that the rate case is complex bordering on incomprehensible because the Postal Service is determined to offer mailers every iota of discounting possible in exchange for every jot of worksharing they shoulder. I’d also like to believe in the Easter Bunny.

Instead, at least part of me suspects that the USPS has couched the rate hike proposal in such complicated terms so as to make it more difficult for opponents to protest the increases. By the time mailers understand just how much more they’ll be paying and what sort of changes (not just in terms of presorting but also regarding trim sizes, comailing, paper grades…) they’ll have to implement to protect their bottom line, the case could be well on its way to approval.

Am I paranoid? Perhaps. But, in plain English, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

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