Friday, March 16, 2012

Still Life With Robin: Sending Me Around the Bend This Week...

by Peggy Robin

My complaint of the week is about  the Postal Service. I know, I know -- too easy a target. But this complaint is about something that could easily be fixed, and at practically no cost. Just putting up a paper sign would do it.  Let me explain:

Last Saturday I needed to send a small parcel to someone in France. The object I was mailing was small, light, and fairly flat, but still too large to fit into a standard size number 10 envelope. First I went to the USPS web site and (after much rambling around from page to page) learned that anything over a quarter-inch in thickness is considered a parcel and so cannot just be stamped and dropped into a mailbox; it has to be mailed from a post office. The Cleveland Park Post Office closes at 1pm on Saturdays, but the Friendship Post Office is open until 4pm. I arrived around 2pm to find the line for a clerk snaking around the mailing supplies island and then curving out toward the door. So I took my place at the end, figuring I was in for at least a twenty minute wait.

Off to the side, there was a second line, with just five customer in it, waiting to use the self-service mailing center. I turned to the woman behind me in line and wondered aloud, “Do you suppose I can mail this package to France using the self-serve center?” She replied, “If you can’t, I can hold your place for you, and you can get back in this line.” With the risk removed from a line switch, I thanked her and took my chances at the end of the much shorter line.

For the first five or ten minutes, I worried that I’d made the wrong bet, just on the observable progress of each line -- combined with my innate sense that the very act of switching lines somehow causes the chosen line to develop a bottleneck. The longer line sent customers to any of four different postal clerks, and each seemed to be taking care of customers at an efficient pace, and so the long line was advancing at a steady clip. The self-serve line, on the other hand, was going nowhere fast, and I could see why. As each new customer came to the self-service station, he or she had to use the computer touch screen to input the answers to a long series of questions: How much does your package weigh? (There was a scale next to the touchscreen to provide the answer.) What are its dimensions? (There was a measuring stick to allow you to take measurements.) Does your package contain any of a long list of problematic substances? Do you want insurance? For each question the customer had to figure out, first, how to calculate the answer and second, how to use the screen to enter the needed information. Making matters worse, the touch screen was very slow to respond and move on to the next question. It was taking about four or five minutes per customer, as I clocked it, and so it took almost fifteen minutes for me to be one away from being served.

At that point I could read the touch screen questions over the shoulder of the woman who was currently using it. After she had weighed and measured her package, she was asked about the destination of the package. Domestic or international? Seeing that question reassured me that I would be able to get my package stamped and complete the shipping in the self service line. Clearly, the machine would not be programmed to ask if you wanted international shipping if that wasn’t one of the services available…right? The woman ahead of me chose domestic, and went on to select her shipping method. Three minutes later she had dropped her stamped and insured parcel into the bin, and I was up at bat.

First I entered the weight, 0 pounds, 2.7 ounces. Next I confirmed that the dimensions of the box were within the maximums listed on-screen . Now I came to the “Domestic or International” question.  I touched the box marked “International” and got the disheartening response that I must take my parcel to the postal clerk. Now they tell me?!

At least I had the person behind me in the original line saving my place…and as soon as she saw me heading back, she not only let me back in but let the newcomers behind us know that I wasn’t a line-cutter . But immediately upon rejoining the main line, I had an epiphany about my rejection from use of the self-service mailing center: There must be a customs form required in this case. I excused myself again from the line and went hunting for the form among the mailing supplies and documents stored in the island in the center of room. Bingo! I had just enough time left in line to fill in the name and address of the recipient in France and describe the object inside the package. Then I was ready to meet the clerk with everything in hand. In just a few seconds she weighed it (0 pounds, 2.7 ounces, but I already knew that!) and told me the maling options. First class mail cost me all of three dollars and fifteen cents.  I paid and left the Friendship Post Office approximately half an hour after I had entered.

So here’s my question/complaint: Why not just stick up a paper sign on the wall right next to the self-service mailing center that says, “Domestic Mail Only”? That’s all it would take to keep the international senders out of the wrong line.

While we’re on the subject of ways to improve the Postal Service, why stop there? The self-service touch screens could be reprogrammed to handle international parcels. There’s no reason that it should take a postal clerk to process a customs form when the form could be filled out by touchscreen, signed electronically, and printed out for the parcel. And why only one self-service station? Why not four or five, served by a single line? Or better still, why couldn’t I do the whole shebang from my home computer, printing out a customs form, a mailing label, and postage, charged to my credit card? These are just a few ideas that came to me while standing in that twenty-minute line.  I’m not sure there’s anyway to get any of these ideas to come to pass, but at least coming up with them passed the time that otherwise was completely wasted.


Still Life With Robin is published on All Life Is Local and on the Cleveland Park Listserv on Fridays. Have any ideas about how to improve the US Postal Service? I welcome them below.

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