Post Office Closings Pose Real Threat to Rural Small Businesses

It’s no secret that the U.S. Postal Service (USPS)―a quasi-governmental agency that is virtually self-sustaining― has been hemorrhaging money these last few years, to the tune of more than $8 billion in the last year alone to be exact.  As a result, smaller post offices with what has been labeled “low activity” in the form of minimal foot traffic and sales as well as a reduced need for labor are on the chopping block. 

While some of these retail postal outlets are in areas where there are alternative U.S. post offices nearby, many of them are not.  In fact, dozens if not hundreds of them provide the only option for sending and receiving mail of any kind for miles around.  And that’s a very real problem for home-based and other small business owners who live in these more remote areas of the country.

Rural home-based and other small business or franchise owners in states like Idaho, Maine and Vermont, where the U.S. post office is the only link many of them have to the outside world, are particularly vulnerable, especially if their primary means of making a living is by mailing their products to customers.  Where alternatives for shipping goods such as UPS or FedEx are an option in some of these small towns, the closest location for far too many of them is as much as 30 to 60 miles away or more.  As a result, the cost of shipping products anywhere outside of the local area becomes almost prohibitive both in terms of time and money.  

In an effort to assuage the fears of so many rural business owners and residents who would be seriously affected by the proposed closings, the USPS is exploring alternatives that would allow them to continue to send and receive mail without undue hardship.  Under consideration would be the relocation of mailboxes at a more centralized location in these small towns.  However, simple tasks such as the purchase of postage or shipping materials would not be accommodated with this approach. 

The other option is for the USPS to work in partnership with local businesses that would then provide more extensive postal-related services such as postage purchasing, shipping and receiving.  Although in a number of areas where the post office itself is one of the few businesses in town at all, this approach will not work either.

By way of precedent, the concept of the “Village Post Office” has already been implemented to some degree across the country as grocery stores and other retail outlets now provide their customers with the most basic postal service-related services, such as the ability to purchase stamps.  However, institutionalizing this approach so that it can actually replace the current retail post office as we know it will take some time and serious planning.  And that’s time that many business owners and residents in the more remote areas of the U.S. just don’t have.

While the USPS has said that it hopes to have the questions and concerns of those most affected by the potential closings addressed in the next few months or so, those answers can’t come soon enough for the rural residents of remote places like Matinicus Island, Cliff Island, Benedicta and Caratunk in Maine.  In a recent statement, Senator Susan Collins of Maine (R-ME) cited these towns, as well as a number of others, as being particularly vulnerable should the USPS close their post offices.

Asserting that “rural post offices are not the cause of (the USPS’s) financial crisis” and emphasizing the fact that “maintaining all of our nation’s rural post offices costs the Postal Service less than 1% of its total budget,” Collins has much to recommend in the way of alternative options to mass closings.

“Instead, the Postal Service should focus on cutting costs that will not involve reductions in service and access to postal products and services,” she writes.  “The Postal Service must embrace fundamental change and take actions to reduce overhead costs, curb no-bid purchasing, bring the workforce benefit structure into line, and better serve customers to increase volume.”