The view from a mail tracker
Last May, we embarked on an interesting new project at SnailWorks – creating an overview of postal service performance based on the billions of pieces of mail we track. I’ll spare you the gory details about the challenges we met simply in working with that volume of data. Then, we had to determine what was meaningful, and the proper way to manage it, and, of course, how to present it. In the end, we were happy with the reports we could pull from our very large dataset. It is probably to most meaningful measure of Postal Performance available outside the Postal Service.
We measured First-Class and Marketing Mail letters and flats, from the point of induction to delivery. If we did not have a clear point of induction and conclusive delivery, we excluded it. In the end we excluded about 40% of the mail, still leaving a very large and meaningful sample. We did not include Periodicals or packages in our data. We do not have sufficient data.
So, how was the service? From what we saw, I would characterize it as “pretty good.” Not worthy of the gushing reviews the Postal Service gave themselves in all those Industry Alerts in the fall, but they also never crashed and burned.
First-Class letters are the marquee product – that is what the media talks about when they talk about mail. The Postal Service only presents results as what percentage was on time, and what percentage was late. To complicate matters, they lowered their standard on October 1, so what was late September 15 might be on time by revised standards. For the sake of consistency, we primarily used the older, stricter standards. Here’s how that has looked this past year:
Service did decline significantly in December, which is not a big surprise during a holiday rush, but it seems to have bounced back quickly. It is important to remember that these are not the current standards – most of the one-day-late pieces are on time under current standards. Here’s how they look using the current standards:
A more meaningful question may be simply, how long it took to deliver a First-Class letter, on average:
It follows a similar patter to the on-time graphs, but gives some perspective – the very best average service was about 2.5 days, the very slowest was 3.5 days, particularly during the rush, but overall, it is typically about 2.75 days. These are averages – there are no doubt some pieces that are still not delivered, but those are outliers. Unfortunately, we just started charting this earlier this year, so we don’t have earlier year figures to compare against.
Marketing Mail is a more difficult class to compare. Our users are all commercial mailers, and a tremendous amount of the mail we track is being drop shipped and destination entered, primarily at SCFs. We do have enough point-to-point origin entered mail to be a valid sample, but it does not represent most of today’s Marketing Mail. The one meaningful metric we could draw was Intra-SFC delivery times. This is how long it took to get from induction into an SCF (generally the arrival of a FAST shipment) to delivery. We really saw no definitive trends, except for a small slowdown in December:
This is largely the same trend we saw in every category: Mail slowed down a bit in December, but not dramatically, and seems to have largely recovered in January. Although we don’t have comparable stats for 2020, I think it is safe to say things are much better than they were.
Of course, there are variables and issues that we can’t measure well. There were, and are, significant carrier shortages in some areas and it’s difficult to tell when mail might be delivered in some of those cases. Mail delays tend to be local rather than system wide, so national averages don’t capture every issue. There were some facilities that had problems during the holiday rush, but nothing like a year prior, and most resolved themselves quickly. And yes, your niece did get her birthday card 3 weeks late, along with many other nieces – but they are outliers.
So, how IS the Postal Service doing? About the same as usual, is the honest answer. For better or worse I think it’s safe to say that at least the USPS has returned to normal. If you’d like to receive weekly updates on how the USPS is doing in meeting delivery standards, click here to sign up for our blog updates.