Some people miss mail

  • June 28, 2011

The recent disruption in Canada Post service has produced news stories about the unimportance of mail delivery that are at odds with my own experience, but presumably reflect the view of many others.

When Canada Post was on strike 14 years ago, even a few days without mail was big news. But during the recent disruption, settled on June 28, I’m not aware of a single newscast that made the work stoppage the lead item, and most days it has not even been front-page news. True, the growth of the online world has undoubtedly reduced most people’s reliance on mail delivery, but newscasters and pundits who think the letter carrier is dispensable are mistaken.

For those of us with a greater than average reliance on mail delivery, it was galling to see editorial content such as: “Postal strike looms — will anyone notice?”;  “In 20 years no one will remember what a mailbox looks like” or “I think there’s a packet of stamps in the house some place.” Even after almost a month, Lorne Gunter of the National Post claimed that “almost no one cares yet that the mail is not being delivered.” Trust me, if a good chunk of your income takes the form of cheques in the mail, you will care.

Donations to charities and non-profits were the first casualties. Banks and utilities can insist that other methods of payment be found, and they can charge late fees. Those who rely on the generosity of their communities can only hope that lost income will be made up when postal service resumes. Most organizations offer monthly donor and online credit card options, but the majority continue to rely on cheques in the mail for anywhere from 75 to 90 per cent of their income.

Beyond that, the mail is the principal means of delivering materials within the charitable sector, including thank-you letters from children and organizations being sponsored in Third World countries, gifts to the elderly or handicapped, and others for whom e-mail is not a realistic option. A short strike will mean only a short disruption, but a longer shutdown can only mean lack of service or the use of much costlier methods.

My business functions depend more than most on steady mail delivery, even though my reliance on e-mail is pretty heavy too. Fundraising, subscription publications, billing and payment have not moved online anywhere near the extent that network and software vendors hoped they would. Newsletters can be and usually are sent out by e-mail, and almost all publications now have an online edition. However, in my view there will always be a need for hard copy. Some people prefer it, and others ask for it after material they’ve requested gets blocked by spam filters.

Marketing experts say postal mail is an integral part of a good marketing mix, and anything I’ve seen in the transition to e-delivery would tend to bear that out. No matter how brilliant a company’s online presence might be, it will still need to use offline methods to get people there, and if it’s a shopping site any purchases will have to be delivered. Most online shopping centres offer postal mail as the cheapest delivery option. According to eBay, a Canadian sells an item approximately every 2.2 seconds through the online auction house, and the majority of those purchases are delivered to the buyer through Canada Post.

When it comes to newsletters and fundraising letters, Canada Post may take a few days  to get your message delivered, but when it gets there people can either read it right away, or put it aside and read it when they have time. People intend to do that with e-mails too, but it’s much easier for the message to get deleted, or simply get buried and get forgotten.

In any case, it is not just businesses and organizations that rely on the mail. Wedding and anniversary invitations, thank you notes, sympathy cards and Christmas cards are still mostly sent by mail, and most of us can’t imagine doing it any other way.

The intangible benefits of reading a handwritten letter really can’t be replaced. Like many people, I have a stack of old, handwritten letters at the back of a writing desk. They have almost the same keepsake value as photos of the people who wrote them. I can’t imagine  e-mail ever replacing that.

(McGarry is Executive Director of the Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada.)

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