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The USPS Is Now Delivering Groceries

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Quick: Try to remember the last time you sprang for 49 cents for a stamp. Most likely, it's been a while. The problem is, whether or not people use the service, the USPS has to employ enough people to maintain the distribution method that makes it possible to send a letter across the country for less than two quarters. That costs money. And when the service isn't used as much, that's wasted money, meaning the USPS loses something like $2 billion per fiscal quarter.

This, obviously, is not a trend that can continue forever, which is why the USPS is dipping their toes into other service offerings. One of the latest? Food delivery.

Over the summer, San Francisco's USPS chapter partnered up with Amazon.com to deliver groceries (through the AmazonFresh line) and other household items like paper towels (through Amazon Prime). The trial lasted 60 days, and was successful enough -- with the USPS averaging 160 deliveries a day across 38 different zip codes -- that the Postal Regulatory Commission approved another two years of services.

There was a learning curve for that initial two months, particularly how to actually pack and deliver the insulated tote bags. "We had an idea of how we wanted to load the trucks," said James Wigdel, spokesperson for San Francisco's USPS. "But things would come up. The totes were soft-sided, so how do you keep them from collapsing in the truck? What was the best way to efficiently load them? Things like that."

With the pesky packing logistics out of the way, the question left was what time of day was best to delivery the groceries. Amazon and the USPS put their heads together and settled for the low-traffic time period of 3 a.m. to 7 a.m., every morning.

"One thing we don't do is knock on the door or ring the bell or wake them up," said Wigdel. Instead, the USPS performs "unattended deliveries," with each customer alerting the post office where the items should be left. "On a porch, inside the door, inside the garage, however they want it delivered." (To counter other problems associated with nighttime delivery, workers are fitted with lighted caps and flashlights.) Following the delivery, customers will simply leave the tote bags where they were dropped off, and the next postal worker coming by will collect them. "Just like early morning milk delivery used to be."

The program also allowed the USPS to design and implement an entirely new style of delivery -- for them, at least -- called dynamic routing. "Now, if you live on a certain block, or a certain street, you generally have a regular carrier who has a regular route," explained Wigdel. "But since we're not going to every single house, every single day, we have to assign them to what we call a dynamic route. Every day, the carrier will have a different route and go to different houses."

This may seem like old hat seeing as FedEx and UPS have been performing this service for years, but it's a big change for USPS's old way of doing things. And if this partnership allows other companies to see USPS as a worthwhile competitor to the shipping options that currently exist, perhaps they'll reap more business partnerships and no longer be the costly albatross they've become.

But that's putting on the long-term prognosticator's cap. As far as whether or not this specific service will be implemented in other cities? "We hope to expand it, not just in San Francisco, but elsewhere," said Wigdel, without being able to go into further specifics. Seeing as Los Angeles is one of the few cities where AmazonFresh is available, don't be shocked if, within two years, postal workers are bringing groceries to your door in the middle of the night.

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