Postal Service brings cosmic convergence

It loses money. It’s line employees wear unfashionable uniforms. It’s trucks are 1970s throwbacks. USPS is constrained by its convoluted oversight and a Twilight Zone existence as a federal agency/not a federal agency. Yet the Postal Service remains an engine of remarkable innovation.

Handwriting and optical character recognition, barcode usage, point-of-sale systems and a variety of physical handling systems have all advanced from work done by USPS.

The latest innovation is called Informed Delivery. This service converges, in a sense, the domains of email and physical mail.

It’s been in pilot phase since late last year in New York and parts of Northern Virginia. I’m surprised it hasn’t gotten more coverage. As my interview with Postal VP Gary Reblin describes in detail, Informed Delivery results from a systems integration approach.

Because if scans every piece of mail to read addresses and sort, the Postal Service generates an image of each piece. Now it retrieves the images, bundles them by address and inserts them into an email sent to the emailbox specified by the subscriber to Informed Delivery. Recipients get their email by 11 a.m. — hours ahead of delivery of the physical mail itself.

My initial question was, well, why would you want that? An email about your mail-mail?

Turns out, people have lots of reasons. Reblin says research shows many households have a primary mail sorter. Often these people, whether meanly or absentmindedly, screen the mail for everyone else in the household. But what to me might  look like junk mail, to you is a treasured credit card offer.

If you’re away, you can know what mail is arriving while you’re gone. Did that wedding invitation arrive? That RSVP? That check? Those tickets?

Reblin said USPS is looking to adding links to catalogs and commercial offers in the emails so people can get an early jump on that offer-of-the-day, or that reduced shirt while your color and size are still in stock. Right now, though, Informed Delivery only includes letter-sized mail.

Some controversy surrounds Informed Delivery. A startup called Outbox in 2013 did not garner USPS cooperation. But USPS officials apparently liked the idea.

Here’s another idea for summer, Postal Service. Among the current commemorative stamps for sale at usps.com are ones depicting soda fountain favorites. Could there be a way to link use of these stamps with discount offers from purveyors of ice cream cones, banana splits and root beer floats?