Of all the business myths we’ve heard, none is more pervasive than the one that says horse-drawn carriage makers could have saved themselves if they had only shifted to cars instead of trying to make better carriages.
There’s probably a grain of truth to it, but not enough to justify the repeating of this claim by tired luncheon speakers everywhere. Still, it’s worth bringing up because of a slightly cockeyed development.
The U.S. Postal Service has — finally — decided to get into the email business. That is, it is offering to send you email with images of postal letters that arrive for you that day.
This free service, called Informed Delivery, is being derided throughout the country because it is 25 years too late. To extend the horse-and-buggy analogy, it’s as if the carriage makers turned to cars in the year 2000.
And it’s not going to save our beleaguered postal system.
For starters, why do you need the paper letter at all when the sender can email the letter to you for free?
The flawed thinking here is that Aunt Millie from Maine would rather tell you about her gout in a paper letter. But Aunt Millie is online, too, not only using email but also social media, according to every study of people in the upper age brackets.
And leave it to the USPS to pursue an activity without making a dime on it (unless it’s planning to charge direct mailers to copy in email what they could send by email themselves). How does it plan to pay for all this scanning?
The USPS has a government-protected monopoly on letter mail. But it tends to get bested when it faces competition, and there is plenty of that in the email realm.
But this stunt is all of a piece, for American history is rife with examples of postal tomfoolery. For example, there was a scheme to use Arabian camels in the deserts of the West. But they proved unsuitable, as they were not accustomed to our hardscrabble ground but to the soft sand of the Middle East.
Worse, most mail was dropped into the system without postage in those days: the recipient had to pay, and few did. Why would they? Some unpaid letters contained news of deaths in the family, but others were sent as jokes — the victim would pay 25 cents for an envelope full of manure.
Many small-town postmasters would let their customers read the letters for free, then take them back: That’s why the Post Office was a sieve. Informed Delivery is built on the same model.