|EcommerceBytes-NewsFlash, Number 2712 - January 06, 2012 - ISSN 1539-5065 2 of 3|
In an effort to expand the availability of its services while pressing ahead with deep budget cuts, the U.S. Postal Service is preparing to begin trials of a new automated kiosk system for shipping and receiving packages.
Dubbed gopost, the lockers will enable postal customers to receive packages securely, as well as offering a drop-off point for outgoing parcels.
The Postal Service is currently conducting technical tests of gopost kiosks in seven locations in Northern Virginia, according to USPS spokeswoman Patricia Licata, who emphasized that the program is in a very preliminary stage.
"We haven't announced it yet," Licata said. "We're just testing right now, so things might change based on the results of the test."
Once the technical testing is completed and the trial locations become operational, the initial user base will be limited to select USPS employees. The Postal Service has not set a firm date for when those trials will begin, but Licata said the launch for employees "is imminent," again cautioning that the timing of the program is "very fluid" and that the dates remain subject to change. If all goes according to plan, the Postal Service would open one or more of the test locations to Northern Virginia customers some time next month.
Should the gopost project pan out and expand to general availability across the country, customers will be able to register for the service free of charge, receiving an ID card that will give them access to the secure lockers. Customers looking for an alternative to home delivery could designate the gopost location as their shipping address, and would receive a notification once their package arrives at the kiosk. At their convenience, they would then head to the gopost location, scan their card at the monitor, which would then direct them to the specific compartment where their package was being held.
"It kind of works like an ATM machine," Licata said of the automated system. She likened the method of allocating storage compartments on an as-needed basis to the package delivery systems in some apartment buildings, where residents will find a key to a storage compartment in their mailboxes when a package arrives. After they retrieve their parcel and return the key, the compartment is then available for the next package that arrives.
"It's not like a private locker," she said. "It's just kind of a holding area."
While mailers would be able to drop off outgoing packages at the gopost locations, as the system is currently deployed, it does not enable them to buy postage and print shipping labels, though Licata said that those features are under consideration as the program matures.
The gopost trial follows in the vein of a similar program that Amazon has been testing in Seattle, New York and London, though that proprietary locker service is limited to deliveries of Amazon purchases. Other ecommerce players have taken note of the advantages of alternative delivery locations, such as Kinek, which has been amassing a network of community delivery locations in the United States and Canada, where it is based, courting online retailers with promises of low-cost shipping and the added security of confirmed delivery to the customer.
The gopost effort would also broaden the Postal Service's menu of options for shipping and receiving parcels in a bid to shore up its competitive position against private operators like UPS and FedEx.
The tagline on the gopost page of the USPS website reads: "Say goodbye to missed packages. Say hello to gopost." And while the secure lockers would have obvious advantages for customers for whom home delivery is risky or unreliable - partial-year residents, those in high-rise apartments, etc. - Licata said that the gopost program is primarily a convenience play.
Six of the seven test kiosks happen to be in front of retail post offices. But the seventh, in the Ballston Commons mall in Arlington, Va., could serve as the prototype for the gopost experiment, which, like the so-called Village Post Office program, is part of a broad initiative to untether USPS services from owned-and-operated retail locations. Licata noted that the initiative aims to expand postal services to places that customers already frequent, which will typically provide extended hours of service.
"For the purposes of testing it was easier to put them there," Licata said of the gopost kiosks located at the post offices.
"The idea is to put them out in places where it's convenient and people are already out," she said. "We're bringing the post office to the customer."
Beyond the current tests, the Postal Service has been working with Northern Virginia real estate firms as it scouts new locations for a potential expansion of a small number of gopost sites in the area. Once the test sites are poised to go live for consumers, the Postal Service will support the gopost program with in-store marketing and other promotional efforts. For the time being, the trials will be confined to suburban points west and south of the District of Columbia.
"We have no plans to expand at this time outside of Northern Virginia," Licata said. "We're going to be testing it to make sure it works well and get the kinks out in Northern Virginia first."
About the author:
Kenneth Corbin is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written on politics, technology and other subjects for more than four years, most recently as the Washington correspondent for InternetNews.com, covering Congress, the White House, the FCC and other regulatory affairs. He can be found on LinkedIn here.
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