As the future of the U.S. Postal Service, which President Trump has called “a joke,” continues to be ominously clouded, a key group of the service’s users on the Outer Cape have been watching the drama with interest: small business owners.
Seventy percent of the small businesses that are listed as currently open in the Provincetown Business Guild’s directory sell their products online. All of these businesses use the U.S.P.S. for shipping; some use it exclusively.
Online sales have soared during the Covid pandemic and the state’s “Safer-at-Home” advisory, said Robert Martin, co-owner of Botanica, a gift shop and art gallery on Commercial Street. The store is “on track to do three to four times as many online sales this year than in 2019,” Martin said.
Although they may be helped by the Small Business Administration’s loan program through the CARES Act, small businesses who rely on the Postal Service to deliver their goods may at the same time be hurt by President Trump’s opposition to supporting it. Despite a plea for a financial lifeline to help it survive the pandemic, the administration has refused to authorize grants to the Service, and has awarded instead a $10-billion loan, adding to the its pre-existing $160-billion debt.
Truro’s Chequessett Chocolate is one local small business that uses the Postal Service exclusively for shipping. Katherine Reed, the company’s co-founder and CEO, understands the U.S.P.S.’s financial troubles but argues for its importance.
“There’s a lot of criticism about the way the finances and structure of the Postal Service have led to its own financial troubles,” said Reed, “but if we can subsidize milk and corn in this country, I don’t understand why we’re not putting more dollars to support it.”
Low U.S.P.S. shipping rates are available to businesses regardless of their size. This helps smaller companies to maintain competitive prices. The tiered pricing structure of private delivery companies such as UPS and FedEx, in contrast, make shipping more expensive for businesses doing smaller volumes.
“Because we are smaller and growing, we can’t get to those tiers,” said Derek Jamieson, head of production and quality control at Snowy Owl Coffee Roasters, which has shops in Brewster and Chatham. “Therefore, we don’t get that discount.” For Snowy Owl, U.S.P.S shipping is often the lowest-cost choice.
Jamieson noted that seasonal businesses also are penalized by the pricing structure of private shipping services. And online sales during the off-season are especially important for the survival of many Cape-based businesses.
In Barnstable County, between 60 and 74 percent of all jobs are in small businesses, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. And in a place where small businesses are such an important part of the local economy, it makes a difference where consumers spend their money. The Postal Service reported last year that 68 percent of the money spent at small businesses stays in the community, whereas only 43 percent of what is spent at chain stores does. Thus the Postal Service, through its support of small businesses with lower prices, helps keep local economies strong.
There is also the issue of convenience. Meghan O’Connor, co-founder of the Captain’s Daughters, a tea shop and boutique in Provincetown, likes the post office for that reason. “Being a small business,” she said, “we don’t necessarily have the capacity for regular pickups for FedEx or UPS. We can’t always escape from the store to meet their dropoff windows.”
Katherine Reed at Chequessett Chocolate said her company’s proximity to the North Truro Post Office was a key factor in choosing to deliver goods through the U.S.P.S. because shipments could be dropped off for delivery as orders came in throughout the day.
Every business interviewed for this article reported reliable delivery experiences with the Postal Service throughout the pandemic. “Obviously, in the time of Covid, everything is a bit more delayed than it was,” said Robert Martin of Botanica, “but typically we have found that delivery times are really only extended by about one day from what they were pre-Covid.”
Jamieson compared the Postal Service’s performance favorably with UPS’s. “UPS has always been the golden child and always been super consistent until this whole Covid thing happened,” he said. “The reliability went from about a 10 to about a 4.”
“The pandemic showed just how vulnerable we are on the Cape,” said Reed, “being so remote and dependent on the mail. In general, our life is only moving more towards digital, using online services to get things brought to our homes and businesses.”
Martin echoed this same message. “For those of us who live in rural communities,” he said, “we are extremely dependent on the Postal Service for an awful lot, both personally, and for our businesses. And I think that is true for much of the country.”
The long-standing reliability of the Postal Service has created its own dividends in the loyalty that its customers feel, even in the face of potential cutbacks. “I know things are changing,” said Jamieson. “The Postal Service might just fall right out from underneath us. But until it does, we will continue on with them.”
Cana Tagawa’s summer fellowship with the Independent is supported by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University.