Do you remember phone booths? Not so long ago, it was a landline world, and if you needed to make a call and you happened to be away from your home or office, you had to use a pay phone. Access to phone services was restricted to these specific locations. There were many, many phone booths, especially in urban areas, but you might have to wait in line for your turn to make a call, or the phone might be broken, or you might not have change in your pocket. It was the best solution for the technology available at the time, but it wasn’t perfect.
Now, of course, our world is wireless. The vast majority of people hold access to phone services in the palm of their hand. Anytime, and almost anywhere, people need only turn on their cell phone, and they can connect to billions of other people similarly equipped. No one, to my knowledge, is seeking to return to the old days of limited access.
I ponder this dramatic change in light of the current public conversation about post office closings. Opponents of post office closings, who seem to be winning the argument at this point, equate the physical post office itself with the concept of access to postal services. They say: no post office, no postal services. Their analogy is the hospital; without the physical building, you can’t get an operation or advanced medical care.
But that’s wrong.
Postal services are like many other kinds of services that can be detached from a specific physical location. You used to have to go to a bank to access banking services, but thanks to the proliferation of ATMs people today enjoy far more access to banking services than ever before. You used to have to go to a video store to rent a movie, but now you can rent DVDs through the mail or stream them online. Where I live, you can order groceries online for home delivery from the same supermarket that I would otherwise have to drive to. The physical thing, be it a bank, a video store, or a grocery store, is less and less relevant to the delivery of the service itself.
Post offices are important, and we will still need many of them, but people should stop thinking that a post office is equal to the delivery of postal services. We are already part-way down this road--like when you buy stamps at the supermarket—but we need to expand our imagination dramatically. Local convenience stores, self-service kiosks, and shipping service stores could all provide postal services equivalent to what you can obtain today at the local post office.
To their credit, U.S. Postal Service leaders want to move in this direction, and we would do well to heed their advice. Facing continuing losses measured in billions of dollars, the Postal Service needs a new financial model, one that is less dependent on physical post offices and more open to a variety of options that would give consumers more choices and more access to postal services..
I’m confident Americans would adapt to this new reality, and even embrace it. Just ask yourself, when was the last time you used a pay phone?