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Mail Volume Expected to Continue Decline; U.S. Postal Service Adapting Services

As what once was a daily ritual is quickly made obsolete by online communication and commerce, the U.S. Postal service has cut hours, merged mail routes and removed hundreds of thousands of its iconic blue drop boxes.

It's not just first-class mail that is migrating to the Web. Junk mail -- the bank offers and ads that often make up most of the day's mail -- has fallen precipitously as businesses follow consumers online. "If you go to banks, they will tell you point-blank that their first priority is to get the hell out of the mail," said Gene Del Polito, president of the Association for Postal Commerce, a trade organization that represents commercial mailers. "These people already see where the change is going."

The Postal Service is valiantly trying to keep up with the times. Customers can buy stamps at grocery stores or online; the system's Web site lets users print out mailing labels and order boxes that the Postal Service will pick up at your door and ship for one price, regardless of weight. "We want people to say, 'Hey, I can turn my home into a post office,' " said Bob Bernstock, president of mailing and shipping services at the Postal Service. "We need to evolve because the way people are communicating has evolved."

These days, children may receive birthday cards from Grandmom, but rarely send them. If there's any thrill left in the mail, it tends to come from things we order, like movies from Netflix, magazines and stuff we buy online. Internet commerce, once expected to save the post office's future, is an important part of the system's revenue, but comes nowhere near making up for dollars lost from the sheer decline in mail volume.

The mail at most front doors now holds few magical surprises such as letters with an international stamp or scented declarations of love, said Nancy Pope, a curator at the Smithsonian's Postal Museum. "Mail is just not as deeply emotional anymore," she said. "We don't have the 'Oh my God, the mail's here!' moments anymore."

Birth announcements and wedding invitations still lend the mail an air of excitement, but consider this: When Rebecca Brodie, 25, a Fairfax County schoolteacher, mails out 175 invitations to her December wedding, instead of including a response card with an envelope and stamp, she will ask guests to RSVP by e-mail.

"We kind of got a little flak for it from the invitation person," Brodie said. But with lots of international family and grandparents who regularly e-mail, she and her fiance decided to save on postage. "Maybe only five out of the 300 people we're inviting don't use the Internet."

Andrew Yankanich still intends to use the mail. His letter carrier told him he can leave his bills in his personal green plastic mailbox next to his front door and flip up the little red flag. So it's no hardship that they've taken away the blue mailbox across the street. It's just, he says, something he'll miss.

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