smart spending

Not your father's post office

Jay MacDonald Is it possible that one day, we'll do our banking at the post office?

I facetiously suggested just such an alliance some months ago in a Bank Shots column that explored humorous strategic partnerships for troubled banks.

Much to my surprise, our rain-sleet-and-snow-hardy friends in blue are actually tiptoeing in that direction based on their seemingly innocuous new product line.

I discovered this while standing in a long line at my post office, free-associating on the more memorable film performances of Gary Cooper. Although you can now lick and affix him to the first-class letters of your choosing, you still can't lick "High Noon."

I have always considered Cooper first class. Apparently, now it's official.

Anyway, as I neared the "on-deck circle" -- that next-up position that determines if merry Marge with the ready smile will serve you or sour Sid whose enthusiasm expired with the 12-cent stamp -- I accidentally bumped into a rack of Hallmark greeting cards.

That's right: full-blown, cheery, funny greeting cards. For sale. From our government!

Does the IRS know about this? How about Homeland Security?

Wait, wait. Greeting cards need ... stamps! Stamps available at ...

Yes, that's it! The U.S. Postal Service has gone rogue! Or postal! Or ... pogue!

I dialed up Greg Frey at the USPS -- posthaste, so to speak.

Baby steps

Turns out I had it backward -- it's not banks that need the post office, it's the post office that wouldn't mind opening a teller window or two.

Frey explained that times are tough for the U.S. Postal Service.

"Since we're not an appropriated agency, we don't receive tax dollars to pay for the nation's mail service," he says. "It's all from what our customers pay us, traditionally in postage and fees for things like post office boxes."

“The U.S. Postal Service has gone rogue! Or postal! Or ... pogue!”

Online bill pay, electronic deposits, flashy e-cards and inexpensive long-distance phone rates have all put the screws to the Postal Service, which now faces cutbacks and layoffs to keep its 34,000 post offices open and its fleet of 220,000 trucks rolling.

One of the remedies being contemplated would expand the goods and services the Postal Service can legally offer beyond those tied strictly to mail.

Greeting cards were a natural baby step.

"About 7 billion cards are sold each year in the U.S., and slightly more than half of those are mailed," Frey says. "Because of the unique relationship between cards and stamps, probably most of the cards that are bought in a post office will probably be mailed, which is not necessarily true of the ones bought in card or drug stores."

Hallmark, which already supplies the USPS with a line of ready-ship decorative boxes, has a one-year pilot agreement with the Postal Service to offer its Sunrise Greetings card brand in 1,500 post offices nationwide.

Limitless possibilities

If I'm stuck in a postal line and suddenly remember my niece's birthday, it's great to have a selection of cards handy. You know what would also be great? To be able to buy a gift card for her. Or cash a check to send her $20. Or even buy a cell phone to call her then and there.

Frey admits the Postal Service is exploring those ideas. Although they're still illegal here, they are commonplace at post offices abroad.

"Most of the other national postal systems have varying degrees of savings and checking products and insurance," he says. "In France, they sell cell phones."

Wasn't that a Joni Mitchell lyric?

While there are no immediate plans to open banking or insurance services at your local post office, those partnerships already exist between the USPS and the companies that insure your packages and provide the money orders they sell. Heck, the post office once sold long-distance phone cards in the pre-cell days.

Should Congress loosen the reins further, there will be no shortage of vendors clamoring to come aboard.

"We have the largest retail presence in the United States; it's bigger than Walmart, McDonald's and a couple others combined," Frey says. "We're also the most visible piece of the government."

A post office/bank/insurance agency/cell phone outlet? Add a barista and a Redbox video rental and I'm a happy one-stop shopper.

Frey laughs. "Who knows? All things are possible here."

Veteran Bankrate contributing editor Jay MacDonald lives in Clearwater, Fla. If you have a comment or suggestion about this column, write to Bank Shots.

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