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Derry store's postal kiosk a 1st in New England

Special to the Union Leader

December 11. 2011 11:16PM
Brian Tobias, a representative from LePage's, a shipping supplies manufacturer, demonstrates the postal kiosk's easy-to-use touch screen. LePage's is working with the U.S.Postal Service and postal meter manufacturer Pitney Bowes to bring the kiosk to retail centers and convenience stores throughout the country. (BARBARA TAORMINA)

DERRY - The U.S. Postal Service has announced cuts and changes in service are coming next year, but the future face of American mail has already arrived in Derry.

Philip Abirached, owner of Metro Market, a well-known convenience store on Rockingham Road in Derry, has installed a fully automated U.S. Postal Service kiosk right next to the self-serve coffee counter. It's the first machine of its kind to be set in a retail business in New England. Abirached and the Postal Service hope the new kiosk will do for the mail what ATMs have done for banks.

'Customers will be able to buy stamps, mail letters and weigh, stamp and send packages,' said Abirached who sees the kiosk as an extension of the services already in place at the Metro Market Plaza. Customers can already pick up groceries, drop off their dry cleaning, fill up their gas tanks, order a pizza and choose a bottle of wine to go with it at Abirached's beer and wine shop.

'I want this to be one-stop shopping for residents,' said Abirached. 'Instead of leaving packages and letters in their car for three or four days, customers can drop them in the mail while they're filling their gas tanks.'

Streamlining service

The postal kiosks are part of the U.S. Postal Service's strategy to streamline operations and cut costs. The service has been hit hard by a drop in mail volume due partly to the shift to e-mail, electronic bill-paying and other forms of electronic communication, and partly due to competition from shipping companies such as United Parcel Service and FedEx. And while revenue from mail has fallen, the costs of maintaining the Postal Service fleet of 218,000 trucks and providing health care and pension benefits for approximately 575,000 employees have skyrocketed.

Faced with more than $5 billion in debt and the looming possibility of bankruptcy, the Postal Service wants to close roughly half of its mail processing centers, shut down about 3,700 local post offices and lay off about 20 percent of its workforce. First class or next-day delivery and Saturday mail are expected to end as a result of those cuts.

A team effort

But the Postal Service, which is still responsible for moving about 40 percent of the world's mail, has been looking for ways to maintain services. One solution has been the automated kiosks, developed through a partnership with Pitney Bowes, the company that manufactures the mail-metering machines found in business offices throughout the country.

The kiosks have been up and running at colleges and some business centers since 2004. The plan now is to move the machines into a variety of retail settings. Pitney Bowes has teamed up with Lepage's, a major manufacturer of shipping supplies, to build that new network.

Brian Tobias, a Lepage's representative who has been working with Abirached to set up the Metro Market kiosk, said a lot of people may remember the Lepage's name from the slender bottles of golden mucilage, the classroom glue for generations of elementary school kids. Today, Lepage's makes the official line of USPO boxes, envelopes and shipping tape, and Tobias has already installed a rack of shipping supplies next to Metro Market's kiosk.

'The Metro Market was a perfect fit for this pilot program because of the great location,' said Tobias who added that Abirached has also been a perfect partner. 'He sees this as an integral part of his business. He plans to put in a center island where customers can do their packing.'

Daily pickup

Tobias said the revenue from stamps and postage still goes to the local post office, which will pick up all letters and packages from the store each day. Abirached pays a monthly fee of $650 to Pitney Bowes to keep the machine and offer the service to customers; Lepage's keeps the boxes, tapes and envelopes flowing.

The kiosks do have a few limitations. They don't dispense regular postage stamps. Instead they print stamps that Tobias called 'colored postage,' which include a bar code that's read by post office mail sorters. Stamp collectors in search of commemorative stamps and new editions will still have to stop at local post offices.

The kiosks also do not accept international packages, which require customs forms. They won't take cash, just credit and debit cards.

Customers can use the kiosk in the evenings and throughout the weekend. And Abirached said the machine is easy to operate.

'It's very intuitive,' he said. 'Most people will be able to use it the first time without any problems.'

But Abirached said the kiosk's greatest virtue is the convenience.

'Every time people want to send a letter or a package, they have to drive seven miles up one way or seven miles down the other way and stand in line for 20 minutes at the post office,' Abirached said. 'In a busy schedule, that time doesn't exist. This will make mailing letters and packages easier for everyone.'

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