February 7, 2014

Project Postal Service. Or, What Really WAS in Those Christmas Cards?

Some of you have been awaiting this blog post for quite some time. I'm sorry that it is quite lengthy, but there really wasn't a good way to break it into two parts.

Brief back story: I recently decided to conduct an experiment - Was the South African postal service (SAPO) really as bad as my experience suggested, or was I unfairly biased against it? How would it compare to other postal services around the world?

My experiment was prompted by a story I wrote about corruption in South Africa. Among other things, I touched on what I called thievery in the postal service, and a reader took issue with that. All my anecdotal evidence was quaint, he said, but where was my factual evidence? At first I bristled over "anecdotal." There is nothing anecdotal about your kids not receiving their Christmas presents from aunts and uncles because they disappeared in the post somewhere. It is hard cold fact. And not ever having had this happen to us before, over years and years of living continents removed from friends and family, the conclusion that the South African postal service must be to blame was not very hard to arrive at. If you read the comments under each of the above blog posts, you will see that I am not the only one. Even Jacob Zuma, South Africa's president, seems to agree with me that something is amiss at SAPO.

But then I thought, why not get some more hard facts, not just about South Africa but on an international scale? The timing could not have been better. I was just sitting down to a mountain of Christmas cards that needed to be addressed and sent out. Almost 150 of them. What if I tracked how long it took for them to get there?

And that's exactly what I did. As I addressed my stack of cards, I built an Excel spreadsheet listing everyone receiving a card and their country, as well as the date sent and date received. I added some snazzy code to show the number of days in transit as soon as there was an arrival date, I sent out emails and Facebook messages to everyone advising them of the experiment and the need to report back, and then I sat down to wait eagerly for the first results to pour back in.

Project Postal Service in my living room, waiting to begin.

It almost felt like election night. I could not wait to get to my email inbox each morning and check my Facebook and text messages every few minutes, in hopes that yet another card could be marked off. Never mind that it was less a deluge than a trickle, and that even now, after the 6-week deadline I had originally set as end point, I still have 14 cards that are unaccounted for.

Here are the raw numbers, ranked in ascending order of average transit time:


CountrySentReceivedMissingAvg DaysMax Days
U.S.A.7068237
Germany
31
22
9
8
11
Switzerland
1
1
0
8
8
Canada
1
1
0
10
10
Japan
1
1
0
10
10
Netherlands
4
4
0
11
15
Sweden
1
1
0
11
11
Thailand
1
1
0
11
11
Taiwan
1
1
0
15
15
Singapore
2
2
0
17
17
South Africa
17
16
1
27
44
Mauritius
1
0
1
Philippines
1
0
1


The outcome was predictable in some ways, but surprising in others. Here is my analysis:

  1. The speed with which the U.S. Postal Service can operate is amazing, especially if you take into account cost and convenience. For just 46 cents, all I had to do was put the stamped letter into my mailbox at the end of the driveway and raise the flag. It was picked up the same day, brought to the local collection center, or so I presume, was sorted that very night, and delivered the very next day within the Nashville area. It can't get much more efficient than that. I've had emails that have taken longer to deliver.
  2. A success rate of 68 out of 70 is very good. The two missing cards? Precisely those which were sent to the U.S. addresses of friends living in South Africa. Presumably, those cards are still in transit in the corporate mail pouch, or lost in the office mail.
  3. But not all of the United States is equally efficient. Granted, it makes sense for mail to take longer the farther the distance traveled, but only to a certain point. The average delivery time within the U.S. was three days, but some places took up to seven. Given that this was sent on a Monday in a week without holidays and still two weeks to go until Christmas, every letter should have arrived by Friday at the very latest. I'm aware that some people might not have checked as diligently as I would have liked, but given that I harassed everybody with multiple Facebook and text messages to "go check your mailboxes right this minute" I am pretty sure that my counts are fairly accurate.
  4. The most impressive inner-U.S. feat was the delivery to Dewees Island in South Carolina in only three days. After having just visited there and seen the island post box that gets emptied and distributed by the local fire chief, in addition to the fact that people (and mail) can only get there by ferry, Dewees should have gotten last place rather than Denver and New Jersey.
  5. The U.S. Postal Service is not very good at returning undeliverable mail to the sender. Of several people who had had a change of address, only one letter was returned. On the plus side, another letter did end up getting delivered, even though the address had changed more than a year ago and the forwarding order expired, because of an alert letter carrier who remembered the family in question.
  6. As predicted, the German postal service was the most efficient of all with the shortest average international delivery time of 8 days*. Granted, Frankfurt might be one of the first international locations to receive mail from essentially anywhere, and especially from the U.S., given its central European location and busy airport, thereby giving Germany an advantage without even having employed its own postal service. But considering all the numbers I'd still say Germany is pretty darn good at delivering mail. They just know how to move stuff fast.
  7. This doesn't mean that Germany overall was very efficient in terms of my experiment. Nowhere else did I have to dig and cajole and query so much as to whether my cards had made it as in Germany. And no other country recorded even close to as many missing cards. Although this might not be as much a function of country as of the average age of the recipients, also known as My Relatives, and their refusal to move up to the rather ancient times of the 1990s with the acquisition of an email address. I drew the line at having to call people I haven't spoken to in years to see if my card got there.
  8. Singapore, often lauded as one of the most efficient countries, was surprisingly slow. Even though my sample size was only two, the fact that both letters took exactly 17 days to get there lets me believe that the slowness was not a one-time fluke.
  9. South Africa, also predictably, came in last at an average of a mind-boggling 27 days (although the first delivery there tied with Singapore at 17 days), and an even more mind-boggling longest transit time of 44 days. It did beat Germany in terms of the success rate, though as I mentioned this is mainly due to me giving up on cajoling a response out of my German relatives, some of whom I know will send me a thank you letter sometime this summer.
  10. On the other hand, the Against-All-Odds award also goes to South Africa, with one card delivered where the post office number was wrong, and another where it was missing altogether. It turns out when things are difficult, people are willing to go the extra mile. 
  11. Technically, Mauritius and The Philippines scored even worse than South Africa, with a total failure on all fronts, but with a sample size of only 1 each, they are hardly representative. I haven't heard back from my Filipino contact in years and, sadly, this might mean that that person is deceased.

One of the cards that made it, against all odds.

I know that this was not the perfect experiment. For one, it was a letter with no potential value attached, like a package, or bank information, or a credit card. After all, my complaint about thievery in the South African postal system stemmed mostly from lost items of value. If ever I repeat the experiment, I should mail out DVDs or credit cards. Or, as one mean spirit suggested, chocolates laced with a laxative.

Second, it was conducted during the Christmas rush, not necessarily representative for the rest of the year. Then again, perhaps it's best to test a service when demand is at its peak, to see how well it performs when things aren't perfect.

Third, I should have either added delivery confirmation or included an incentive for people to respond. Most of us gladly receive our Christmas cards and put them away without further thought.

Fourth, South Africa has an unfair hurdle, in that people have to make an effort to get their mail, typically at a post office box they have to drive their cars to, park, and perhaps walk some distance. Not something you do every day, especially when you never receive much mail to begin with. Short of putting a GPS tracker into every single card, there is no good way of recording the exact transit time.

Fifth, South Africa has another hurdle, which is self-imposed: How the hell do you actually write a South African address? No one seems to know. In my address book, I have hundreds of U.S. addresses. They all have an identical format. Same with the German ones. Absolutely identical, no exceptions. And then I have about twenty South African addresses, and every single one comes in a different sequence. Sometimes the postal code comes after the country, sometimes the province is added, sometimes Johannesburg makes an appearance but most often it doesn't, and people using the same post box location use different postal codes. I once asked a postal clerk what our postal code was, and she gave me three of them. Throughout all our time in South Africa, I was never quite sure which one was right.

And finally, I didn't take cost into consideration. If you added "best value" to the experiment, I suspect the United States would also score out front (take notice, Americans: your postal service is not only one of the most efficient ones, it is also one of the cheapest!). My cards to South Africa cost $1.10 each, whereas a card from South Africa to the United States, according to my friend Natalie who sent 175 cards of her own, cost R22.40 (about $2.25, so twice as much). Although that price is debatable. As Natalie tells it, one year she went around to three different post offices and got three different prices to mail her Christmas cards; of course she picked the cheapest, the Rosebank post office, at R7 each, and amazingly, they all made it. No one in South Africa really seems to know how much it costs to send a letter abroad.

One unexpected outcome of the experiment? My address book has never been so scraped-clean and up-to-date as right now. I corrected addresses as needed, I tracked down long-lost contacts via LinkedIn and Facebook, and I exchanged unused email addresses for current ones.It will be such a charm mailing out cards next year, with a ready-to-go spreadsheet that I can print out for those elves in my house who address my holiday cards.

And perhaps it will be time to finally purge my Flintstones relatives who never responded at all.

* Switzerland technically tied Germany with 8 days, but given that it only had a sample size of one, it's not as statistically relevant.