US Postal Junk Mail Service

We’re discussing a junk mail case from the 1970s in my information privacy law case. In Rowan, Justice Burger laments:

…the plethora of mass mailings subsidized by low postal rates, and the growth of the sale of large mailing lists as an industry, in itself, have changed the mailman from a carrier of primarily private communications, as he was in a more leisurely day, and have made him an adjunct of the mass mailer who sends unsolicited and often unwanted mail into every home. It places no strain on the doctrine of judicial notice to observe that, whether measured by pieces or pounds, Everyman’s mail today is made up overwhelmingly of material he did not seek from persons he does not know. And, all too often, it is matter he finds offensive.

And things have only gotten worse since 1970. Here are the most recent statistics from the Postal Service on junk mail (here, roughly defined as “standard mail”). Starting in 2005, the Postal Service started carrying more standard mail than first class, and now the gulf between the two is pretty significant. Also, note that the standard mail is much heavier than first class mail, and it generates LESS revenue!

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San Francisco recently passed a resolution calling for a do-not-junk-mail list. I’ll be signing up.


14 responses to “US Postal Junk Mail Service”

  1. In the UK we have schemes called MPS and TPS (Mailing Preference Service and Telephone Preference Service) and I can certainly confirm that being on their block lists stops almost all of the addressed junk mail and junk phone calls. The only junk phone calls I get now originate from auto-diallers in the US, thanks guys. Any company with which one has a proper relationship can still send letters of course, but most big campanies now understand that they don’t win friends by annoying their customers who have stated a “no junk” preference on their forms.

    In theory, one can also stop the unaddressed junk mail delivered by the UK’s mail service but that’s less reliable. But also less of a problem.

    Yes, life is much more pleasant with these preference services – the people of the US should try to get one too.

  2. “San Francisco recently passed a resolution calling for a do-not-junk-mail list. I’ll be signing up.”
    Now how is that going to work? San Francisco has no control over the USPS. I can see entities getting the do-not-mail list in order to get names and addresses to mail their junk to.

  3. I can see entities getting the do-not-mail list in order to get names and addresses to mail their junk to.

    Oh yeah, sure, that’s a really great idea. Obviously, anyone who’s taken the trouble to sign up to an opt-out list is exactly the sort of person you want to be sending junk mail to.

    Even without any legal backing, an “I will not buy anything from you if you send me junk mail” list should discourage mass mailers from sending mail to anyone on it, simply because they’re not good sales prospects. Why waste money mailing people who have explicitly stated that they don’t want you to, and are therefore likely to react negatively if you do?

  4. Randy F

    Interesting. Yes, it is true that Bulk Business Mail, BBM, tends to be heavier than First Class Mail, FCM. It is also true that the cost to send BBM is less than FCM. However, what is not mentioned is that the reason for these lower costs per piece, even with a greater weight, is that this sort of mail from major mailers is presented to the USPS already sorted, with standardized addressing. Much of the nationally presented BBM is also provided to the USPS in the Carrier Route Walk Sequence order.

    Major mailers also provide mail with deliverable addresses or, they request from the USPS a correction to the address where necessary. The mailer pays the USPS for this information.

    These major mailers also drop ship their material right at the Postal Facility where the delivery is done. What this all leads to is that the USPS basically incurs no sorting costs and no transportation costs to effect the delivery. The rates paid reflect that reduced cost.

    BBM rates are also “tiered”, so to speak. What this means is that the closer that the mailer deposits mail in to the mailstream to where it is to be delivered, the less they pay the USPS for that delivery. This reflects the work that the USPS does not provide.

    BBM is what you might call a “bare bones” type of service. Each part of the process has a cost. The mailer can reduce their cost by doing some of the processing that the USPS would need to do.

    The problem with these sorts of comments is that people tend to compare the two classes of mail as if there are similar levels of service. In fact, there is a reason that there are two distinct classes. Each has its own rules and regulations and, yes, rate structure.

    As an example, you send a graduation card from Alaska to your nephew in Florida. Oops, you did not know that he took an internship for the summer in New York. Not a problem with First Class Mail, the USPS will send it on to New York. Oops again, nephew didn’t like it there and was offered a position in his hometown in Oregon. Again, no problem. The USPS will send that letter on to Oregon.

    What an amazing thing. Your letter took a trip of maybe 10,000 miles, for a minuscule 42¢.

    This does not happen with BBM. Like with any other service industry in the world, The less you pay, the lower the level of services that you will receive.

  5. a lurker

    To add to what Randy F says, the simple reality is that without those mass mailers to generate revenue, it would cost a lot more to mail an ordinary letter. Mailmen do cost money as do the jets (or whatever) that send them across the country. If a letter bag or letter cargo hold does not have many pieces in it, it is all but certain that not enough revenue has been generated to pay for the salary of the letter carrier, the cost of operating that jet, etc.

    And I have never understood the objection to junk mail. Junk mail has never bothered me while napping, while eating, while trying to get work done, while at leisure, etc. Junk mail never comes 15 times in a day. And if it is unneeded, it takes only a few seconds to rip it and put it into the recycle bin.

    Now I would outlaw unsolicited checks for money that I am not owed–those are usually high-interest loans if cashed. After all, that would be bad news if intercepted by the wrong people. I would also outlaw anything false or misleading. No junk mail should have the right to put “urgent”, etc. in hopes of making us open it to make sure that it really is not important. Such markings should be limited to truly urgent business (i.e. not selling something).

  6. I didn’t see anything that separated the standard “junk” mail from the standard business mail (requested catalogues, bills, etc.). I’m sure you wouldn’t want to give the impression that the USPS carries more junk mail thaqn first class if that is not correct.

  7. @Danimal: a similar objection was raised to do-not-call, which before it went national, was adopted by states. The regulation wouldn’t touch the USPS–instead, you tell mailers that they must scrub their lists before contacting those consumers who have decided to opt out.

    @Randy F: you’re totally correct. Bulk mailers take on some processing themselves in order to get lower rates. However, I would not be surprised at all if those lower rates are actually below USPS’ costs. There has long been an allegation that the junk mailers were subsidized by the government.

    The USPS prostrates itself to junk mailers as it is. It lobbies against junk mail regulations, and it even has employees who serve bulk mailers. I’d like to see the USPS employee whose job it is to shield me from unwanted mail…

  8. There is an existing “do not mail” list that, while not perfect, works pretty well – the Mail Preference Service. You can read more about it here:

    I started using this some while ago, and the effect was pretty dramatic – my mailbox went from numerous pieces of junk mail daily, to just one or two a week.

  9. I know of some people who should be glad there is no hell, because if there were, they would surely go there. My mother gets a mailbox full I do not exaggerate – it’s usually (literally full) almost every day from a variety of solicitors, mainly extreme right wing nuts and some “charitable” organizations. OK, she essentially asked for it by giving money to some of them once. But they mail several of the same solicitation EVERY WEEK. I have returned mail to them telling them that my mother is 86 and can’t afford to send them money, but no one has stopped so far (Newt, I’m talking about you). I hold them in utter contempt and wish them nothing but ill health, poverty, and sadness for the rest of their lives.

  10. I went to to stop my junk mail. It took a few weeks to see a difference, but it really worked. I couldn’t believe it!

  11. @Chris

    @Danimal: a similar objection was raised to do-not-call, which before it went national, was adopted by states. The regulation wouldn’t touch the USPS–instead, you tell mailers that they must scrub their lists before contacting those consumers who have decided to opt out.

    I am on the the do not call list. I still receive calls. Not as many. As soon as who is calling can tell that I am trying to get info on who is calling they hangup.
    Most mailing lists use to come from the Motor Vehicle Administration (MVP) in the state that your brother is moving to (we will soon be closed neighbors). They used to sell driver addresses for revenue. Now you can opt out.
    My point was what can a city do to regulate what the USPS does? Nothing. Empty words.

  12. CaptainBooshi

    Chris, I don’t really have a problem with this, as long as you realize that broad acceptance of this would require greatly increased stamp prices, or more likely, a change in law so that the Post Office is directly subsidized by the government, which would most likely mean a tax. Maybe even a change in practice so the post office is only open 5 days (which they might have to do anyway, the way things are going now) or has less outposts. As long as you’re honest with people that this means they will be paying money or getting worse service to not get junk mail, and the majority of people are willing to do that (I would be), I don’t see why this would a problem.

    You did mention that “There has long been an allegation that the junk mailers were subsidized by the government,” but the evidence is pretty firmly against that. Since all junk mail is presorted, the only real cost to the Post Office is the extra gas used to carry the extra weight (which may very well get expensive for cross-country flights, so you can’t discount this). You would still need all the post offices, the postal carriers, the trucks, the postboxes, and the daily delivery so normal people can use the post office. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the profit margin is even higher for junk mail than regular mail (although I have no numbers, so I have no idea if that’s true, and I could easily be wrong). The fact of the matter is, most mail delivery is significantly cheaper than 42 cents. What’s generally happening is the people in cities and towns are subsidizing the people living in rural and hard-to-reach areas, where the cost is much more. The reason a free market won’t work is specifically (to my understanding) because a small but significant portion of the market would be prohibitively expensive to get mail to, so no company would do it. Otherwise, mailing things would be even cheaper than it already is for most people.

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  14. Jon H

    I imagine that a lot of junk mail is probably locally printed and distributed, so it isn’t filling up long-haul mail shipments.

    The only junk mail I get that is *really* annoying is the weekly local ad taco (large, cheap newsprint tortilla around a filling of smaller junk items). That tends to fill up my small mailbox, ensuring that anything else gets squished.

    Ok, the other thing that annoys me is junk mail that misrepresents itself as being important or official. That should be illegal.

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