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You've got mail! But would it matter if you didn't?

By Alan Silverleib and Mariano Castillo, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The U.S. Postal Service is considering scaling back its services, including shifting to a 5-day delivery week
  • The service is facing several financial shortfalls as fewer Americans use traditional mail
  • Some Americans don't rely on traditional mail at all, while others still use it frequently

(CNN) -- Meet Pete Huh, a 39-year-old high-tech entrepreneur who couldn't care less if the U.S. Postal Service closes its doors tomorrow.

"From a work perspective, it wouldn't make any difference at all," said Huh, a married father of two in Redondo Beach, California. "I do everything electronically. The only thing I use snail mail for is government forms."

Cycily Thomas, a 38-year-old federal contractor from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, has a very different perspective.

"My nieces enjoy arts and crafts in school, and like to send me examples in the mail," she told CNN. "Checking the mail is part of my daily routine," and it would be "culture shock" if that ended.

Huh's perspective, however, may be more indicative of a changing culture now threatening a mail delivery service that dates back to at least 1775, when Benjamin Franklin was named the first postmaster general. The Postal Service is considering scaling back its delivery partly to compensate for the fact that more Americans now e-mail, text, and instant message their way through the day.

As the overall volume of mail passing through the country's traditional postal system declines, the service is facing increasing financial strain. Among other things, it doesn't have enough cash on hand to make a required $5.5 billion payment to its retiree health care trust fund at the end of September.

"Right now we are required to deliver six days a week," Postal Service spokeswoman Yvonne Yoerger said recently. "If it can go to five days a week, as proposed, we could better match the declining volume of mail."

That's fine with people like Huh, who says he gets a few cards in the mail every year, but not much else of personal importance.

"I don't think it'll be devastating if the post office closes down completely. Private companies can offer similar services," he said.

Al Grant, a real estate broker in Washington, D.C., agrees with Huh.

"It wouldn't really matter to me if the mail vanished," Grant told CNN. "It's becoming obsolete with online banking and bill pay services," he said. "A lot of companies have taken away the cost of paying over the Internet or phone, so it's much more convenient to do that."

Aside from that, Grant said, "the quality of regular mail delivery has become so bad that some days you don't even miss it."

Grant often works from home and says traditional mail is important to his business, but "if it's just five days a week and we skip Saturday, it won't be missed."

Sometimes it's just as easy to go to UPS or Kinko's, he added. "It's just a matter of convenience."

Not everybody sees it that way. Cutting Saturday delivery would disproportionately affect rural communities, the elderly, and countless small businesses around the country that conduct business over the weekend, according to the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Eliminating Saturday service could also be particularly disruptive over holidays such as Labor Day weekend, creating a gap in mail delivery stretching from Friday to Tuesday.

Additionally, the association points out that millions of Americans still aren't on the Internet and rely heavily on traditional mail. As for UPS and FedEx, they generally reach only a small fraction of the 150 million addresses covered by the Postal Service.

Defenders of traditional mail also insist that text messages and other forms of electronic communication are a poor substitute for a hand-written note.

"Nothing can replace the hand-written letter, the personal touch of a loved one that retains value over the years," said Frederic Rolando, head of the association. "Holding a handwritten letter from a grandmother is like you're touching her. Try that with an e-mail."

Thomas, always on the lookout for packages from relatives in New York and Florida, agrees with Rolando.

"My livelihood is centered around information technology, so I'm a big fan of the Internet. But traditional mail is a staple of my life," she said. "A lot of my friends and my family -- especially the older generation -- they don't e-mail. So traditional mail is a staple of my life. It's very relevant."

As for bills, you never know when you might have a problem with an electronic payment.

"Just in case, I always have envelopes and 'forever' stamps on hand," Thomas said.

Jim Sampey also considers the U.S. Postal Service critical. Sampey is the chief operating officer at Cox Target Media, which distributes 485 million "Valpak" coupon packages through the mail every year.

"The U.S. Postal Service is a critical vehicle for our distribution," Sampey said, noting that the service is Valpak's exclusive carrier.

Valpak's mailings reach 43 million consumers every month, Sampey said.

Sampey supports some consolidation and downsizing, including a possible shift to a five-day delivery week. "I think the postal management can get it right, but they need legislative help," he said.

While companies like Valpak are undergoing a digital transformation, Sampey doesn't see a future without Benjamin Franklin's corporate heirs.

"I don't see that happening," he said when asked about a future without the U.S. Postal Service. Despite all the changes, "it (still) plays such a vital role for many communities out there."

CNN's Donnie Comer contributed to this report

 
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