Almost every day over the past year, there’s been a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of a new Village Post Office. There are hundreds of stories in local newspapers about these grand openings. The Postal Service clearly thinks that Village Post Offices play an important role in its vision of the future. But it’s not exactly clear what function they really serve.
Just this past week, the Postal Service opened a Village Post Office in the Creekside Market and Grill in Miracle, Kentucky; the Summit Mart convenience store in Mount Summit, Indiana; Ferrante Upholstering in New Beaver, Pennsylvania; and Knoll Brothers Retail (also a convenience store) in Kingsford Heights, Indiana.
At this point, there are over 760 VPOs in operation. Nearly all of them just sell stamps and give out flat-rate boxes. Despite the name, they’re not really “post offices.” The Postal Service chose to call them that because they were originally intended to replace real post offices. The Postal Service wanted small town communities to feel that while they might be losing their post office, they would be getting a good-old-fashioned “Village Post Office” instead. There would still be a warm place in town to meet and greet the neighbors.
Now the Postal Service says that VPOs are not intended to replace post offices. Rather, they provide some added convenience to customers who can’t get to the post office when it’s open — a common problem now that POStPlan has reduced hours at nearly 13,000 post offices.
But one can’t help but wonder if the Postal Service doesn’t have some other motive besides “customer convenience.” After all, if customer convenience were really a priority, why reduce post office hours for 13,000 communities? And what about customer convenience in the more than 12,000 communities that aren’t getting a VPO to supplement the reduced hours at the post office?
The VPO program is actually about something other than customer convenience. It’s part of the Postal Service’s effort to redirect retail traffic from brick-and-mortar post offices to “alternate channels.” These include USPS.com, stamps-on-consignment (at over 50,000 pharmacies, banks, and retailers), and pack-and-ship stores in the Approved Shippers program — like the 1,500 Staples stores where the Postal Service will soon be found and the 2,000 Walmarts that will soon have a Goin Postal shipping store that sells USPS products.
By bringing in more business through alternate channels and less business at post offices, the Postal Service can cut window hours and save some money. That translates into fewer union-wage jobs for postal clerks. Plus, with customers getting more accustomed to doing postal business at private retailers, it will also be easier for the Postal Service to close post offices when the time is right. Ultimately, directing customers to Staples, Walmart, or a VPO represents another a step in the privatization of the retail network.
That this is the Postal Service’s goal becomes clearer when you look at the economics of VPOs, where they’re being located, and how the rationale for them has evolved.