Thursday, October 09, 2014


On Buying Postage by Correspondence

The Objective

A postal service ought to be able to leave a sheet or two of stamps in a mailbox, oughtn't it? Assuming the stamps are bought and paid for, of course. It turns out the United States Postal Service cannot, or will not, if the buyer is overseas, even if the delivery address is in the United States.

Consider the scenario of someone in another country who needs--or just wishes--to send a self-addressed stamped envelope to someone in the United States. How can they do this? They might be able to place an order, send payment to the U.S.P.S. and have the stamps sent to them. If for some reason the U.S.P.S. does not want to ship stamps abroad--but why would they not?--perhaps the stamps could be delivered directly to the intended beneficiary of the stamped envelope, and the envelope sent separately.

The Experiment

The U.S.P.S. does offer postage stamps for sale via an Internet ordering and payment system. The experimental protocol used entailed the following steps.
  1. Create a personal U.S.P.S. customer account.
  2. Place an order for a sheet of stamps. In this case, stamps of type "Global Forever" were selected as the most appropriate for mailing from the U.S. to anywhere in the world without concern for tariff changes.
  3. Pay.
  4. See whether the stamps arrive.

The Results

Customer Account Creation
The customer account creation was quite straightforward. In addition to name, one is required to provide an e-mail address, phone number, and physical postal address. Perhaps inappropriately, an address in the United States, that of the intended recipient, was entered. It was tested for authenticity, and a foreign address might (probably) have been rejected. Interestingly, the phone number entry field did allow the possibility of entering an "Int'l" number.
Actually, there was a curious glitch, but which was not insurmountable. The password for the account was to meet certain conditions: at least seven characters, a letter and a number, and allowed --but not required--to contain punctuation marks from a given list. A first password composed of five digits, two letters and an allowed punctuation mark was refused by the system with a message "Must contain one number" or words to that effect. A second password candidate containing only one digit (and one punctuation mark) among the many letters was accepted.
Placing the Order
Once the appropriate article had been identified and put in the shopping cart, order confirmation was attempted. The address as entered during customer account creation was rejected by the system for having an invalid telephone number. An alternate delivery address form was proposed by the system; the only country in the "Pick a Country" list is the "United States" so clearly it would not be possible to have the delivery abroad (other than to various armed forces and similar alternative 'states').
Interruption of Test
Since the order placement could not be completed for either delivery goal, the test was ended at that step.


There may be a rationale for this, but what? Why not ship abroad if the purchaser pays the shipping fees? Are the fees too complicated for the post office to calculate? Perhaps the range of other products available for purchase on their site includes some not easily shipped, but why not then just mark those as not available for overseas delivery? As for domestic deliveries, there was no indication that deliveries would be necessarily registered, which might justify needing to be able to contact the recipient; yet even if they were, one can just leave a delivery notice and expect the recipient to come claim their parcel.
It is not clear whether the problem lies with the order entry system or the lacking service offering. Would the post office mail the stamps to a foreign address if the order entry system allowed capturing a foreign address? Perhaps they would, and it is just the software that is faulty.

Conclusion and Prospects

This is disappointing. The solution appears to be to get a phone number from the intended recipient, if they are willing to divulge that information. But how to ask them and hope for a reply if one cannot send a stamped self-address envelope for their reply along with the request? (This is what is called a bootstrap problem.) It seems one cannot rely on postal methods alone for this use-case, one needs telephones. That's progress?
An alternative may be to purchase printable postage --to print directly on an envelope--rather than physical stamps; it remains to be seen what "delivery parameters" would be required or omitted in that case.

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