Consumers Can ‘Police’ Their Own Mailbox

Is it time to end the federal government’s monopoly on using your mailbox?

Perhaps you’ve come home to find that online purchase you’ve been waiting for sitting on your front stoop, out in the open. Or perhaps you got home from work to find, instead of that important document or check, a shipper’s “sorry we missed you” note taped to your door?

Why didn’t they just use your mailbox? Because that would be illegal. By law, even though you probably paid for and installed your mailbox yourself, only items bearing U.S. Postal Service postage may be placed there.

The postal service claims that this “mailbox monopoly” protects both your privacy and the integrity of the mail by guarding against theft and destruction. But it’s hard to see the monopoly as anything but outdated, inefficient, and downright inconvenient.

After all, if you own and maintain your mailbox, should a government agency really have the right to tell you how you can and can’t use it?

Of course not. In fact, that’s exactly what the blue-ribbon President’s Commission on the Postal Service argued in its 2003 report. The Commission proposed that consumers choose whether or not to allow private individuals or delivery companies to access their mailboxes, “so long as it does not impair the universal service or open homeowners’ mailboxes against their will.”

A 2007 report by the Federal Trade Commission agreed. The postal service’s monopoly on mailbox use “limits consumer choice and artificially increases the costs of private carriers,” it concluded.

The FTC also reported on eight countries without mailbox monopolies. For one thing, none noticed a significant loss in postal revenue. Six reported little or no problem with theft from the mailbox.

Tellingly, the United States is the only country in the world with a monopoly on mailbox use. The reality is that the monopoly is more hindrance than protection for consumers, and any advantages that it offers the postal service are highly overrated.

The mailbox monopoly is particularly inconvenient to those who live in urban apartment buildings without a front desk or in rural areas. If consumers are unable to sign for delivery, their only choice is the post office.

It’s no surprise, then, that most Americans believe that major delivery companies should have access to their mailboxes, according to the GAO.

Last year, the U.S. Postal Service claimed in its annual report that it would “foster growth and innovation in the mailing industry” and “find new ways to make the mail work better for our customers, large and small.”

Clinging to a dubious, anti-competitive measure like the mailbox monopoly hardly sounds innovative. And it certainly doesn’t make the mail work better for customers, large or small.

Lifting the monopoly would not require drastic changes. At the beginning, eligible private delivery companies could be required to register to use the mailbox, with the approval of individual customers. This should allay any consumer concerns of theft or abuse and maintain some accountability.

Consumers ought to be able to retrieve all of their correspondence from their mailboxes — not just some of it.

Food for thought, the next time you find yourself waiting for something important.

Don Soifer is executive director of the Consumer Postal Council in Arlington, Va.

Don Soifer