- The Washington Times - Monday, November 23, 2009

One week ago, the U.S. Postal Service reported a $3.8 billion loss for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 and said it could lose as much as $7.8 billion this fiscal year.

There are many reasons why the proud service Benjamin Franklin founded is on the ropes. One small part might be the agency’s cavalier attitude toward customers seeking to integrate today’s computer technology with its services.

Since 1991, when the first computer-automated laser-jet stamp-printing kiosks were tested at the Merrifield post office, I’ve followed many iterations of what could be called “digital postage,” for want of a better term. Many of the private-sector initiatives, such as Stamps.com, have done relatively well in meeting customer needs.

To compete, the Postal Service offers a service called Click-N-Ship on its Web site, www.usps.com. Sign up for a free account, have a credit card handy, and you can print a Priority Mail or Express Mail label, complete with bar code and postage, speeding you through the mailing process. It could be a boon for the millions.

The hassle came when trying to do all this with an Apple Macintosh computer and Mac OS X version 10.6. The Postal Service’s site says its Web service is geared toward computers running Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and does not support Apple’s Safari Web browser. Fair enough. However, the claim is also made that Mac users could employ Mozilla’s Firefox browser. I tried, twice. It didn’t work either time.

The flaw, it turns out, is in making sure that Adobe Corp.’s Acrobat Reader is specified as the default PDF file reader for documents created with Click-N-Ship. This involves getting into the “guts” of the Firefox program, working with settings for applications and the like. It’s not impossible, but it’s not superfriendly to busy consumers. Apparently, it’s also not something Windows users have to do.

At a time when the Postal Service is looking to grab every customer it can, and with the holidays at hand, it seems grating that Mac users are relegated to second-class citizenship when it comes to Click-N-Ship. Mac users made up nearly 9 percent of the U.S. computer market in the third quarter of 2009, according to Gartner Research.

What’s more, Mac users could end up paying more: The online shipping discount for Click-N-Ship users isn’t available, obviously, at postal counters. If users can’t figure out how to print a label on a Mac, they’re stuck.

Apparently, Mary Beth Fluto of the Postal Service feels my pain. She’s manager of online programs and said an overhaul of www.usps.com, code-named Project Phoenix, is in the works. Ms. Fluto said it should appear online in the “late spring [or] early summer.”

The Postal Service is redesigning the “most popular” elements of the Web site, Ms. Fluto said, and is re-engineering “the ‘print shipping label’ application” with the goal to “make it more Mac friendly.” While Mac sales are growing, Ms. Fluto said Mac users account for just 5 percent of the Postal Service’s Web customers.

A boon for stamp collectors is also in the works, Ms. Fluto said, with plans to revamp the shop.usps.com portion of the Web site to provide “state-of-the-art e-commerce” and “cater a little more to collectors.”

I can only hope the Postal Service burns the midnight oil and summons the spirit of Herodotus, whose dictum about ancient Persia’s couriers is paraphrased as “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Every online shopper — and shipper — deserves equal access at the post office.

E-mail mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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