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A week ago I learned that it costs a little more to send a letter than it did a couple of months ago. Many people I know had no idea that there had been an increase. Not so long ago, if the US Postal Service wanted to increase their rates there would have been a national discussion, even outrage. Today, sending and receiving letters and parcels is remarkably easy and so commonplace that we barely give it a thought.
Let’s begin with that stamp. It now costs 55 cents to mail a first-class letter weighing one ounce or less. Postage rates vary widely around the world, but I believe that this is still considered to be a very reasonable rate. They are now commonly referred to as forever stamps because there is no price printed on the stamp. This is significant because, historically, stamps had a value attached to them. Whenever there was a price change, US citizens were compelled to purchase stamps of a lower value to make up the difference. Letters could have three to five stamps of different values affixed to the envelope.
If this sounds crazy, it is. Once the forever stamp was introduced it didn’t matter if the price increased. This explains the mild surprise I experienced when I purchased new stamps. I was no longer inconvenienced by needing to buy a bunch of one-cent stamps to make up the difference in cost. The public outcry whenever postal rates increased was largely fueled by that frustration. Why it took nearly 150 years to come to this common-sense solution is baffling to me.
Forever stamps also come with many colorful designs. American history, scenic beauty, and culture are always on display in special limited series. In addition to the iconic US flag stamp, the everyday design for most mail, you can currently purchase other commemorative stamps at the same price. Tap dancer and actor Gregory Hines is being celebrated with a stamp, as is the 200th anniversary of Alabama’s statehood, the beautiful cactus flowers of the American southwest, the iconic Bethesda Fountain in New York City’s Central Park, just to name a few. Later this year the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival will be celebrated on a postage stamp.
This week I shipped some electronics equipment back to the satellite company which owned it. My instructions were simple – gather it all up, bring to any UPS Store location, give them my customer number, and the UPS people would do the rest. I was skeptical. How much would this cost me? In fact, it cost me nothing. It was paid in full by the satellite company. I had my transaction completed within five minutes. And I didn’t have to drive out of my way to do it.
There are four major shipping companies in the United States competing for your business. There’s United Parcel Service (UPS), Deutsche Post (DHL), Federal Express (FedEx), and old friend United States Postal Service (USPS), what many still call the post office. There are also many smaller companies used primarily as courier services. Every service has exclusive locations situated in towns and communities across the country. Of course, more rural areas may have fewer options available to them, but these businesses are eager to serve.
We also have independent postal centers in many locations. These retailers are drop-off and pick-up locations for all four of the previously mentioned big shipping companies. They will help you pack and ship pretty much anything, selling consumers the proper boxes, envelopes, and all packing materials. Postal centers provide many other services, including document shredding, mailbox rentals, and some printing needs.
Until quite recently, the biggest online retailer, Amazon, relied upon the USPS and FedEx to do most of their shipping. That is changing. Yesterday I received a product from Amazon which they shipped and delivered without third-party involvement. Soon, Amazon hopes to have unmanned drones deliver their products from the sky. They already have their own cargo airliners. Tragically, one crashed recently. Amazon also has mailboxes for customers at Whole Foods locations, the grocery chain now owned by the mega-retailer.
Where does this leave other competing retailers like Walmart and Target? Well, they are struggling to catch up. But, given the amount of money involved, you can expect these companies to launch their own delivery and shipping services. Robots and driverless cars are probably the future for many of us trying to get that new shiny object into our homes faster and more conveniently than ever before.
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