US Postal Service Express Mail

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When It Absolutely Positively Has to Get Somewhere, Sometime

Dec 21, 2000
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Somewhat Inexpensive, Saturday/Sunday Delivery for Same Price

Cons:Unreliable, Spotty Tracking Service, They Try to Con You Out of Your Refund

Since this is a time of year when many of you may be considering the selection of an express delivery company, I am going to share with you my horror stories about the United States Postal Service's Express Mail. I'll try to be fair, and mix the good with the evil.

First of all, don't take my word for it that Express Mail, with a couple of exceptions, sucks. Okay, I know that those of you who look keenly for the verb "suck" in the first couple of lines are now considering rating this lower than HR. Get your hand off that mouse!

In any case, Consumer Reports, last year, did a little test where they sent a few hundred packages, between various places in the U.S., by Express Mail, UPS, and FedEx. The results will not surprise anybody who has used all three services. UPS and FedEx were on time 97% of the time. In my own experience, having used UPS hundreds of times and FedEx quite a few times, I've never had them deliver anything late. But this review isn't about FedEx or UPS, it's about the United States Postal Service's Express Mail service, which scored a 64% on-time rate in the Consumer Reports test.

Before I get into the horror stories, let me just point out an interesting little fact which the Postal Service does not publicize about their express service. While they do always charge you the same minimum of $11.75, they don't guarantee overnight service to all parts of the country. Recently, I had to get something overnight to Grants Pass, OR, which I think is the third or fourth largest city in Oregon. In any case, it's a definite population center. And the U.S.P.S. can't get anything there on an overnight basis, as do UPS and FedEx. There's a regional airport right outside Grants Pass, by the way, meaning there's absolutely no reason that it would logistically impossible for the U.S.P.S. to provide reliable overnight service to this southern-Oregon city.

The moral of the story -- if you're depending on the U.S.P.S. to get something anywhere farther than 200 miles from where you live, you'd better make sure that the place is not one of the exceptions to their much-advertised overnight Express Mail service.

Express Mail service is also weather-sensitive, in a way that FedEx and UPS are not. While a huge natural disaster, like a serious hurricane or an earthquake, might slow down the private companies, a light dusting of snow can throw a wrench into the creaky Express Mail system. I know this one from experience. Once, I was waiting for some Express Mail to get to me in MA from New York City. I noticed on the weather that it was snowing (not that heavily) in CT, which is on the truck route that the Express Mail takes getting from NY to certain parts of MA. Sure enough, the package got slowed down enough to miss that day's delivery.

Now, while we're on the subject of packages getting slowed down, and the general concept of finding out where your package is when it doesn't show up, let's talk about the U.S.P.S. "tracking" service.

Any of you who have used UPS will probably be familiar with tracking. As long as you have the ID number of your package, you can either go online, or call an 800 number, and they'll tell you where your package is. UPS doesn't follow it every second, but they do scan it, thus updating the tracking information, quite frequently, generally doing a scan when its put on the truck, a scan when it gets to the local departure airport, a scan when it arrives at the UPS hub airport (either Memphis or Nashville), a scan while it's sitting at the hub in the middle of the night, a scan when it arrives at the destination airport, a scan when it arrives at the local distribution center, a scan when its put on the delivery truck, and a scan when it gets handed to your recipient.

The Express Mail tracking system often shuts down completely. Even when it is working, it is not uncommon for a package to get delivered without ever showing up in the tracking system. It's certainly not confidence-inspiring. When the tracking does work, there's generally only a scan at the post office from which the package leaves, a scan at the destination distribution system, a scan when it gets to the destination post office, and a delivery scan. These would be sufficient, if the system worked regularly, but it doesn't.

The one thing the U.S.P.S. is very efficient about with Express Mail is trying to screw you out of the refund for packages that are delivered late. The trouble starts with the delivery personnel, who will frequently falsely fill out the time on the delivery slips of late-delivered packages to make it look like they got them there just on time. When you complain about this, you get that wonderful, reflexive bureaucratic response of "it's your word against the postal carrier's." With UPS, there's no argument about the delivery time, because each carrier has a hand-scanner which automatically sends the delivery time back to the UPS mainframes. Of course, with UPS it doesn't matter because they're never (in my experience) late.

The Post Office requires you to have both the final delivery slip, proving the late delivery, and the sender's receipt. They will only issue the refund to the sender. Since the delivery slip generally ends up somewhere far away from the sender, this in itself creates a logistical problem for anybody who wants to get a refund. Clearly, they do this simply as a way to make it practically impossible for many people to get the refunds they have due. It's in their computer (when the tracking finally catches up) that it's delivered late. They can look it up or call their own 800 number to check it. Why should they need the delivery slip?

The actual Post Office personnel, in my experience, will generally try their hardest to make it impossible for you to get the refund. This is a strange attitude for a service which is so frequently late. You'd think they'd savor the PR value of at least making good on their guarantee when they deliver your package late, but that's not the U.S.P.S. style.

Let me give you an example of what their style is. I once got so angry about the service that I wrote a letter to the head of the main post office in New York. This person took the time out to write a two-page reply, not apologizing and making a commitment to improve the service, but providing justifications for the problem about which I was complaining. So, that's the attitude of the Post Office about their shoddy Express Service. They're willing to spend more time defending it than trying to improve it.

I promised to mix the good with the evil, so let me briefly enumerate three advantages of Express Mail.

First, it costs less than the other services. I think the UPS overnight envelope (up to eight ounces) rate is about $14 to $16, depending on the destination of your package. FedEx is about the same, maybe a little more. As mentioned before, Express Mail charges a flat fee of $11.75.

You can send Express Mail from just about any staffed Post Office in the U.S. (and from any mailbox, but you'll get no proof of when it entered the system). In a couple of large cities, such as New York and Washington, you can actually send out Express Mail on a Sunday, something you can't do at all with FedEx or UPS (though the deadline in New York City, for Express Mail sent on a Sunday, is 2:30 p.m., which is rather ridiculous). In most places in the country, though, Post Offices are closed on Sundays, so there's no sending of Express Mail on this day.

Express Mail is delivered 365 days a year. Except for places with the "two day" service, as mentioned before, that means you can send something on New Year's Eve, for example, and it'll get there on New Years Day (if it's among the percentage of packages which arrive on time). That is one service you can't get with UPS. I think FedEx might have Sunday service, but it would probably be very expensive. Both UPS and FedEx, by the way, tack a $10 surcharge onto their shipping rates for Saturday delivery.

So, if you have something that you're not too worried about, that you want to get somewhere in one day, or maybe two, or maybe never, save your pennies and send it Express Mail. If it's important and it has to get somewhere overnight and you want to know it's arriving on time, stick with UPS or FedEx.




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