Now you can not only buy a toaster at Sears, but without leaving the store you can mail it to your mother. As an experiment, the Postal Service has allowed Sears to open limited-service postal offices, staffed with Sears employees, in several department stores in the Chicago area. The Sears deal, frets the president of a local postal union, "could be the beginning of privatization of the U.S. Postal Service."
Postal Service management may be attempting to calm the unions by downplaying the Sears program. Lou Eberhardt, a spokesman for the Postal Service, said that the arrangement is nothing new. Contract stations—where private companies sell stamps and receive some packages for mailing—have been around since 1835. But many of the country's 6,000 contract stations are in remote areas, where Postal Service employees don't want to live. "It's difficult to get somebody to go into a small community," says Eberhardt. Obviously, that's not the case in Chicago.
Sears had tried unsuccessfully for years to get Postal Service permission for such an arrangement. Previous postal chiefs flatly rejected it. "They were so damned scared of their own shadow," says Postal Rate Commissioner John Crutcher. "They didn't want to upset the unions."
Anthony Frank, who was appointed postmaster general last year, was the first to allow Sears to offer limited services on a trial basis. And the Sears program is not Frank's only push for postal reform. In the past four years, the Postal Service has created more than 14,000 stamp concessions in pharmacies, grocery stores, and convenience stores. But Frank shifted the program into high gear by reaching an agreement with 7-Eleven that will add their 8,000 locations.
Neither the Postal Service nor Sears will say whether they intend to expand the program to other locations. Local postal unions have threatened to picket the Sears experiment despite a USPS spokesman's insistence that "no postal worker has lost a job because of it." Perhaps they fear, as a local union president wrote in a letter to the editor of a newspaper, that Sears is using unqualified workers instead of the "most dedicated, knowledgeable service personnel in the country." Yeah, that's the ticket.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Sear-ious Postal Service".