How Junk Mail Is Helping To Prop Up The Postal Service

There’s no doubt the US Postal Service is struggling. It faces a multi-billion dollar deficit, and is considering closing thousands of post offices.  For years, the USPS has been complaining that email is eating into its market share.  And they’re probably right.  After all, how many letters, cards, and packages do you usually get in a week?  What you’re more likely seeing in your mailbox is exactly what I’m seeing: mountains of ads, address labels, and catalogs you never asked for, and don’t want.

All of this commercial detritus begs the question: How much is junk mail propping up the US Postal Service?

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

You'd be surprised at how important junk mail is to the Postal Service.

“We don’t use the ‘J‘ word.”

That’s what Tom Rizzo told me when I called and asked him the question.  Rizzo’s the spokesman for the Postal Service’s Northern New England District, which serves Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.  “Standard Mail or Advertising Mail is an extremely important part of our mail mix these days, since stamped mail started declining in 1998.”

How important is it?  Rizzo pulled up some numbers for me.  “Total mail volume First-Class in 2010 was 78.2 billion pieces,” he said, while, “Standard Mail volume, [or] Advertising Mail, was 82.5 billion pieces.  That comes to 160.7 billion pieces, and that’s very close to what our volume was last year.”

Rupert Ganzer / Flickr

A world without junk mail might be less irritating in the short-term, but it could also mean a Postal Service in much worse shape

So saying ad mail is, “an extremely important part of our mail mix” is something of an understatement.  It’s more than half our mailif you don’t count things like express delivery, media mail, parcel service, and some of the USPS’ more esoteric delivery options.  (I unofficially call this mix “the regular mail,” because I don’t get packages, certified letters, and flat-rate boxes sent to me everyday.)

Seeing the sheer numbers for Standard vs. First-Class mail, you could be forgiven for believing that basically, Fingerhut’s all that’s keeping the Postal Service afloat.

Rizzo said it’s not like that.

“While Advertising Mail takes up a larger percentage of mail today, it takes on average three pieces of mail to make up the contribution of a single piece of First-Class mail.”

But in 2010, the Postal Service found it was actually closer to a 1:2 ratio, with First-Class Mail bringing in $34 billion while mail termed “Advertising” brought in $17.3 billion.

Whether it’s 1:2 or 1:3, ratios like that are the kinds of talking points that show up on an agency fact sheet.  They’re very, very hard to check.  Given the average Rizzo cited, it’s clear the people who send us letters inviting us to change our insurance pay significantly less than the woman sending her grandson a graduation card.  And this led to an interesting pair of conversations between Tom Rizzo and me, the highlights of which are presented here:

Q: “So what is the standard rate for Standard mail?”

A: “It’s less than the First-Class rate.  Those mailings are designed for mass mailings, so they’re more economical, and help drive the economy.  Advertising mail comes in all shapes, sizes and forms.”

Q: “So can you give me a range?”

A: “I want to stress once again…it’s very difficult to put a particular number on it because there are so many different categories of advertising mail.  I can say…the most economical way of doing ad mail, it can be done with as little as 14.2 cents apiece, but that requires the customer to do more.”

Q: “What would you get for 14.2 cents?”

A: “That could be an 8×10 sheet of paper folded in half.  Roughly comparable to First Class, one ounce size.”

Q: “So is that like the letters insurance companies send out?  And what’s the difference between what say, they would pay versus a catalog, like FingerHut or even L.L. Bean?”

A:  (Frustrated sigh) “I think somehow we’re not connecting.  There are very, very specific requirements on classes of mail, rates of mail…There are manuals on this stuff, so it’s just very, very difficult to answer in a manner that’s easy to reduce down to a sentence.  So I can’t give you a number.”

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Besides letter carriers, mail sorters, and clerks, the USPS employs people who deal specifically with junk mail

After another futile (and most likely annoying) attempt to get some sort of number from him beyond the 14.2 cents figure, Rizzo told me that the USPS actually employs a number of bulk mail specialists.  And they’re probably the only people who could answer my specific questions.  That’s right: There are people who navigate the labyrinthine regulations on what Publisher’s Clearinghouse pays for postage versus the nuns who send crucifixes along with their donation letters.

So I decided to take a look for myself.  After all, Standard Mail rates are public information.

And I quickly found out that Rizzo’s got a point: They’re pretty much incomprehensible to a layperson.  If you go here, you can actually see USPS rates for a variety of mailings, including Standard, or Ad Mail.  And if you print the document, it’s 103 pages of pure arcana.  Carrier routes vs. Automation.  Saturation vs. Basic.  AADC vs. Mixed AADC.  Three-Digit vs. Five-Digit.  Non-Profit vs. Commercial.  Letters vs. Large Envelopes vs. Parcels.

You’d probably have better luck translating hieroglyphics without the benefit of the Rosetta Stone.

So what’s the takeaway from all of this?

  • You’re not imagining things.  You probably are getting much more junk mail than anything else.
  • That mail could make up better than half your neighborhood mailman’s (or woman’s) bag on a given day.
  • The sheer abundance of this mail helps keep letter carriers and bulk mail specialists working.
  • The size of the bulk mailings, and the number of companies that send them, make junk mail an important part of Postal Service revenue.
  • But it’s so cheap overall that it still doesn’t contribute as much to the USPS as First-Class mail.  And that’s despite the continuously declining popularity of sending stamped envelopes through the mail.

Then, of course, Rizzo reminds me, there’s the business angle, “Mail is about the most economical way of advertising.  You can get it in more hands at less cost than virtually any other form of advertising…That’s one of the big advantages of hard copy mail, that people have it in their hands and have to evaluate it…Many people delete spam [from their email inboxes] before they even look at it.”

In other words, junk mail’s better for business than spam, because at least you have to take the trouble to throw it away.  And if you actually make a guilty donation to the non-profit summer camp that sent you address labels, or decide that the latest commemorative plate from the Bradford Exchange is a sound investment after all, then Standard mail–and the Postal Service–has done its job.

You can find other numbers related to the state of the USPS across the country–and in New Hampshire–in my previous post here.

*”More” Rizzo said, could mean any number of things, but generally, the more sorting a customer does for the ad mail before it hits the Post Office, the less they pay. 

Ed. Note: In a previous version of the story we quoted Rizzo as saying “that would be an 8×10…” instead of “that could be an 8×10…”  We also originally noted 14.2 cents was equivalent to “First-Class first ounce,” rather than “First-Class one ounce size.”  We regret the errors.


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