Even in an online world, the daily mail has its place

Even with all the recent changes in communication, there are still significant needs for door-to-door postal delivery.
A letter carrier delivers mail in Halifax on May 30, 2011. (Canadian Press)

Any time John Rafferty's grandmother didn't receive her audio books in the mail from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, she was quite upset about it.

"It was a really important connection for herself culturally with the rest of the world," says Rafferty, now the president of the CNIB.

Rafferty remembered his grandmother's frustration as he considered the threat of the postal strike, and the significance of daily mail delivery in the life of his organization. 

Much has changed in how Canadians communicate since the last postal strike 14 years ago. Email, texting, Skype and other forms of electronic communication have become commonplace. Canada Post itself acknowledges a 17 per cent decline in letter mail per address in the past five years and does not expect that trend to reverse.

E-commerce has increased exponentially, too, with Canadians doing much more business online.

But even with those changes, there are still significant needs by many specialized or marginalized groups in particular for door-to-door postal delivery.

Susan Eng, vice-president of advocacy for CARP, the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, says the number of handwritten letters she has received in her role within the organization is "the most extraordinary thing."

"The postal service remains an important way for people, seniors in particular, to stay in contact with people, whether personally or with us as their advocacy group," she says.

"I think people who are used to using mail and relying on it would find a postal strike very unsettling."

'Greater commitment'

Eng sent letters from CARP to each of the 308 MPs elected in the recent federal election and she hopes the correspondence won't be lost in the MPs' junk mail.

There is much virtue in the "personal approach," she says. "I think when you take the time to write, people see it as a signal of greater commitment."

Canada Post recognizes that Canadians' online habits have "changed tremendously," says spokeswoman Anick Losier, but at the same time, people still like getting mail such as Christmas cards.

"There's something very special about receiving something in the mail, and it's something people may have forgotten in an era of email," Losier said.

But more than just personal contact, the mail can also bring vital fiscal support for groups and charities who don't always have the technological means to solicit online.

'We rely on the mail for donations to come to us.'—John Rafferty, CNIB

"We rely on the mail for donations to come to us," says Rafferty, noting that 70 per cent of CNIB's funding is though charitable donations.

Each day of a postal strike would cost the organization between $25,000 and $30,000, Rafferty says. The CNIB spent money recently letting people know of alternate ways to donate (online or by phone) and encouraging people who use its library services to explore other options for reading material.

"One of the biggest challenges when someone loses their vision is that people get isolated, they're less likely to go out. They rely on the audio service that we provide as a real link for social purposes and cultural purposes to be able to stay connected with the world."

While a growing number of people are downloading CNIB library services, Rafferty says 90 per cent of CNIB library users still rely on the mail to get their recordings.

Wedding invitations

Another group that relies on the mail: brides, who spend hours choosing and addressing invitations for their big day. Some worried women reportedly hustled to get their invitations out early when word of a possible postal strike emerged.

"Most people still need the mail for sure," says Rita Yoon, who owns Stephita Wedding Invitations in Markham, Ont. "Ninety per cent — they do mail their invitations."

From a business standpoint, Yoon also depends on the mail to get paid.

"We get a lot of cheques," she says, noting, however, that her business has also just opened up other methods of payment, including direct bank deposit.

Even in the world of direct deposit and online business, though, there is still often that connection to the postal service.

Small and medium-sized businesses depend on Canada Post to keep payments flowing and to deliver goods, says Losier.

"Canada Post is still a very essential service when you look at it from a small-business perspective," she said. "Everybody assumes everybody is online, but not everybody is."

According to eBay, a Canadian sells an item approximately every 2.2 seconds through the online auction house.

The majority of those purchases are delivered to the buyer through Canada Post, says Kevin Wolfley, community relations manager for eBay Canada.

"Shipping is a central issue for doing business on eBay," he said.

Other options

But there are options other than Canada Post, and Wolfley expects eBay's Canadian market will continue to function in the face of any postal disruption.

Canada Post recognizes it's in a "competitive market" for parcel delivery, says Losier, and needs to improve its tracking methods and equipment.

But the company is well poised for moving forward, she says.

"Canada Post is the only delivery company that delivers to every single household in the country."

For the National Association of Major Mail Users, which represents businesses that use Canada Post to distribute marketing material, a strike is "very serious," says president Kathleen Rowe. The industry group has called for an emergency debate in Parliament to focus on the economic impact of a postal disruption.

"Even the whisper of a strike starts causing the mailing industry harm," Rowe said. 

Since the threat of a strike emerged, there have been 5,000 to 7,000 layoffs in the industry, Rowe estimated, and that number will likely increase now that the strike has begun.

'Not a blanket panacea'

While marketing campaigns may include electronic or digital components, Rowe says, substituting electronic delivery methods for postal delivery to get a message out "is not a blanket panacea."

Canadians still like to get a piece of paper mail in their hands, she said.

"There's only so much that you can do in a digital environment," Rowe said. "That tactile piece of mail is a good mix within that marketing campaign."

Rafferty has no interest in seeing any sort of postal disruption drag on.

"For those of us that are in a position where we're able to be online, where we are able to go to a Chapters and buy a book, we take for granted how important [postal service] is. One of the challenges in Canadian society is that the postal service is even more important to the marginalized aspects of society, and so we really need this to be solved quickly."