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Nor Gloom Of Byte
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

The USPS Promises Shipping Simplicity But Has Trouble Delivering It

I really like the ad campaign that the United States Postal Service (USPS) has been running for a while now. I just wish it was better, and I wish the USPS was doing more.

The ads -- I'm guessing the campaign is called "If it fits, it ships" -- fire on all cylinders:

Functional benefit -- The pitch is substantive and simple, offering a single rate for shipping. Writing as someone who still adds an extra stamp to those envelopes with more than a few sheets of paper in them (instead of forking over the chump change for one of those little scales) I think this benefit is great. My guess is there's research that reveals I'm not alone.

Emotional benefit -- A service provider that'll make my life easier? I'll take two! The TV spots are funny without being crude or stupid, which allows the viewer to get the emotional payoff attached to the functional benefit. It's really smart to attach this feeling to a tangible deliverable that arises from operations (and not something abstractly attached by clever marketers).

Associative benefit -- It's notable that the USPS campaign doesn't try to reach too far and make the case for its service making users smarter, more popular, or whatever. Its competitors take the opposite approach and I'm not sure the associating business works (here specifically, or all that often generally).

Put in different terms, the USPS campaign delivers meaning (I get the point), relevance (I could use it), and utility (I could use it like today).

It's only when you get to the fine print that you discover that "fit" and "flat rate" have caveats.

The offer promises that there's no need to weigh anything up to 70 lbs, which means you have to weigh everything to determine if it qualifies, doesn't it? There's not one box in which something must fit in order to qualify for the deal, but four, and each comes with its own price (shipping "starts" at $4.95). What's the flat rate for a package that fits into one of the boxes and weighs 69.9 pounds? There's no way to tell.

So what steps have been simplified? How is this going to save me money? The campaign promises simplicity and then simply blows it up with too much complexity. This is textbook violation of a brand promise...and it ruins much of the upside for the campaign. For anybody who has had to stand in line at the post office to get something mailed or shipped, you know that there's a residual expectation that the experience will be somewhat less than efficient. The fine print of this campaign just reinforces that perception (again, no research here other than my own life).

It bugs me, because I want the USPS to succeed. We need an agnostic, delivering-everywhere service in our country, so I put it in the category of basic utilities. This brings me to yesterday's news that many of the nation's largest brick-and-mortar retailers have joined forces to offer an expedited shipping service to better compete with Amazon (and other online retailers). They're making it happen through an exclusive contract with Shop Runner, Inc.

Why isn't the USPS doing it?

I have to believe it has the systems to manage such a program, and it certainly has the distribution tools to execute on it. USPS exists in geophysical reality; there's no play for an online experience that does anything but make its business a bit more efficient (like letting people buy stamps online). It is in the do-or-die business of making physical delivery sustainable. There must be a way for it to assert this position through meaningful and competitively unique offerings. Could it offer a 3-day delivery program for a fraction of the cost that Amazon offers for its 2-day service? Could there be a flat rate (or rates) that were truly flat?

Right now, the retailers and Shop Runner are simply copying the Amazon deal, though the offer of free returns is a one-up. Amazon will quickly match it and then offer something better, I'm sure. You can't beat online efficiencies by mimicking them. The opportunity for retailers and the USPS is to make the offerings meaningful, relevant, and have utility in ways that Amazon and its online cohort can't even touch.

By definition, that would mean more integration with geophysical experience. Again, I don't know what it would look like, but I sure wish we were seeing more of it from the USPS.

Neither carts nor clicks nor gloom of byte stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Added: 7th October 2010

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