Has the Digital Era Reinvented the Postal Service?

In a world where email, WhatsApp, Facebook, and other forms of instantaneous messaging seem to dominate, it’s curious that there is still a firm holdout from the analogue era: the postal service.
However, its future existence is not a given. Finding ways to stay relevant in the digital era is a problem that postal services in nearly every developed country are facing. And given the fact that we pay pills online, send e-cards instead of birthday cards, and expect next-day delivery as standard, an appeal to nostalgia is not enough. As the New York Times wrote recently, “With traditional mail services in decline, post offices around the world are scrambling to reinvent themselves for the digital age.”
The United States Postal Service has just upped its game with its new Informed Delivery service feature. This allows recipients to receive a scanned photo of what mail they are going to receive before it arrives. Though it doesn’t scan the inside of the letter or parcel—this would impinge on privacy rights—it does provide a helpful email digest each morning to registered users who want to know what is coming when, and prevents users from missing important letters they are waiting for.
From a tech perspective, this didn’t require a huge investment on behalf of the USPS as it relied on existing processes. Rather, the USPS clearly saw it as an opportunity to provide an enhanced user experience for their customers—something that sounds an awful lot like a startup mentality. As TechCrunch explained, “Interestingly, the USPS has already been scanning the outside of your mail for a while — it’s how their automated equipment sorts it for delivery by ZIP Code and street address. They also occasionally provide these images to law enforcement agencies that request them as part of a criminal investigation. So providing these images directly to users didn’t require any additional hardware — just the software backend to direct the scanned images to the right accounts.”
The USPS seems to be recognizing that rather than fight the tide of new technology, it should embrace it as well as understand who its new competitors are. This involves an understanding thatdigital marketing now competes with direct mail, bills are increasingly paid electronically, and even our traditional competitors are changing. One recent example is the USPS partnership with Amazon.com to provide package delivery on Sundays in a couple of thousand offices. To get this done, we built and delivered a dynamic routing capability from scratch in three months.”
Another example of a postal service that’s trying to stay relevant is decidedly more ambitious. Singapore’s postal service rolled out a service called SingPost, which melds traditional delivery with e-commerce support for delivery-based businesses, offering many of the services that you might expect from a company like Amazon. As the New York Times reported in 2015, “SingPost’s makeover is among the most ambitious. Besides its regular postal duties, it offers a basket of services for companies, including website development, online marketing, customer service and, of course, package delivery. Following the Amazon model, it is building a network of 24 warehouses in 12 countries to stockpile goods for companies. The e-commerce team is staffed with former Silicon Valley executives.”
The common thread is recognizing that the way people relate to physical objects including post—as well as people’s expectations around instantaneous delivery and flexibility of returns—has fundamentally changed in the digital era. Thinking of postal service users as “customers” who have lots of choices for how their goods get delivered is the key to staying competitive. It’s not enough to assume that you customers have to use you; you should make them want to.