Postal customers take a licking |

Postal customers take a licking

Sarah S. Chung

In a scene reminiscent of the last-minute Christmas rush, lines of daunting length had postal customers grumbling early this week in Aspen.

They weren’t alone. A nationwide rush on 1-cent stamps led to long lines and shortages of the stamp – a result of Sunday’s hike in postal rates. It now costs 33 cents to mail a letter first-class, leaving anyone stuck with a supply of 32-cent stamps in need of an extra penny’s worth of postage.

While postal customers fumed that the post office was unprepared for the predictable rush, postal officials cite a variety of factors for both the run on the stamps and their inability to keep it in stock.

The long lines are a product of human nature – plenty of folks waited until the last minute and then some to buy the 1 cent supplemental postage, say postal officials.

Complicating the crush of customers in Aspen was the untimely breakdown of the stamp machine in the lobby, said Jarmon C. Smith III, interim Aspen postmaster.

With the machine out of commission, customers not only couldn’t buy the 1-cent stamp without a trip to a postal clerk’s window, it also forced them to wait in line to purchase 33-cent stamps.

In addition, Smith said, many early customers “overbought” the local post office’s supply of 1-cent stamps.

“With the stamp machine it was a case of bad timing,” Smith said. “Also, people were overbuying rolls of 500 stamps. I guess when people were saying they wanted $5 worth of stamps they weren’t always thinking that that equaled 500 stamps.”

Post offices across the country began running out of the 1-cent stamp by Monday afternoon.

The Aspen office held out a little longer and ran dry on Tuesday afternoon, Smith said. When the Aspen branch opened its windows on Monday morning it had 25,000 1-cent stamps on hand. It was out by Tuesday afternoon, but by Wednesday morning, another shipment of 25,000 supplemental stamps had arrived.

“We weren’t surprised that offices were running out,” said Norm Scherstrom, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service at its Washington, D.C. headquarters. “It’s human nature to wait until the last minute. It happens every year around Christmas and tax day. Every year at midnight on tax day, people are lined up in their cars to send their returns. They know it’s coming all year, but every year it still happens.”

According to Scherstrom, there are 2.5 billion 1-cent “make-up,” stamps now in circulation. The 1-cent stamp has been a postal denomination for years, but after the rate change was announced in June, 2.5 billion “make-up” stamps were produced to supplement the 32-cent stamp.

Bumped-up volumes of the 1-cent stamp have been available since early November, said Scherstrom.

“It’s a challenge for us to try to guess where and when the biggest demand will be,” Scherstrom explained. “It’s hard to establish a buying pattern when rate changes only happen every four years. We depend on local field managers to gauge their customers.”

At the Aspen branch, Postmaster Smith prepared for the rate change rush by putting two extra workers at the windows. As during the Christmas holidays, six rather than four postal workers attended to customers.

In addition, Smith announced another stamp machine will be added to the post office lobby within two weeks. Stamps can also be purchased at the Aspen City Market, he said.

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