Ben Franklin Would Love to Send Letters From Staples

Photograph by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Isn’t it ironic that the U.S. Postal Service selected a retail partner whose business is almost as troubled as its own? That was the key point in a clever piece by New Republic’s Alec MacGillis condemning the plan to open outlets in Staples stores. USPS lost $5 billion last year, which is why it is eager to boost its revenues by opening retail outlets in Staples. The retail chain isn’t doing much better. Earlier this month, following dismal sales, Staples announced that it was closing 225 stores.

Even if Staples weren’t in trouble, it’s unlikely MacGillis would support the USPS in this case. He argues that opening post offices in stores is likely to lead to long lines in existing postal facilities. ”The postal service management [has] decided they’d rather have you head off in search of a Staples, somewhere out there in the big-box jungle,” he writes. “That is, if there’s even a Staples left standing in your neck of the woods. Somehow, I doubt this is what Ben Franklin had in mind.”

Franklin, the nation’s first postmaster general, might not like the idea of poor service, but he would have no qualms about opening post offices in stores. In Franklin’s day, there were no free-standing post offices. Almost all of them were all located in taverns and coffee houses. In that sense, the latest USPS plan is more keeping with his original vision than its critics might care to admit.

Indeed, opponents of the USPS reform efforts often evoke Franklin’s name. They suggest that the USPS shouldn’t alter or reduce its operations because it was founded by one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and the current system is somehow what he had in mind from the start. That’s not true. It was cheap to send newspapers through the mail in the early days of the American post office, yet letters were so expensive that most Americans rarely bothered. That didn’t change until 1845, when Congress threw out Franklin’s old pricing system and introduced cheap uniform letter pages. There was no home delivery back then—unless you paid extra for it.

There’s a larger point to be made here. Throughout its 238-year history, the American postal service has changed a lot. Now it needs to transform itself yet again, so it can survive in the digital age. The Staples plan may have drawbacks, but it’s similar to what forward-thinking postal services in such countries as Sweden and Germany have done to reduce costs as mail volume falls because of the Internet.

In fairness, MacGillis acknowledges that the USPS needs to change with the times. He applauds it for striking a deal last October with Amazon to delivery the Web retailer’s packages on Sunday. He might want to reconsider the Staples plan, especially since he’s so eager to drop Ben Franklin’s name.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.