Go with the declining paper flow

I can’t remember the last time I received a nice handwritten letter in the post from someone; all I get is a surfeit of bills and credit-card offers. This makes two products aimed at ending our need for paper-based mail sound appealing.

Confusingly, one offers to put my physical address online, while the other is an online service offering me a physical address somewhere else, as a destination for snail mail that will be scanned and made available to me over the web.

The methods of both suggest real-world postal services are not going away in a hurry, but businesses may find some benefit in the new alternatives.

With Zumbox, launched last week, users receive a Pin code in the post that allows them to claim an online version of their street address.

Businesses can then start sending “mail” to this online address, which is based on the Zumbox website. It can be opened by clicking on regular envelope icons with the sender’s address.

The content can be more sophisticated than regular mail: clicking on a “pay now” button allows you to pay your bill, catalogues can be flicked through online and promotional videos played.

Of course, there is nothing here that you could not receive in your regular e-mail inbox if you sign up for e-mailed statements from banks and utilities and newsletters from companies.

So Zumbox seems a kind of “e-mail for dummies”, if there is anybody still left who is online and not familiar with e-mail or with asking their credit card company to let them access their statements via the web.

Glen Ward, president of Zumbox, told me the advantage was that Zumbox could be an aggregator and send alerts to your regular inbox when the Zumbox version of snail mail arrives.

The Los Angeles-based start-up plans to partner with businesses and utilities who will promote the service as a way of receiving correspondence electronically.

If Zumbox would allow me to tick boxes to convert to online all the utility bills, medical statements, special offers and credit card applications I receive by post into an online format, that really would reduce my mail load and do more for the environment – Zumbox is also plugging the green aspect of course.

But it lacks the critical mass to achieve that so far and getting everyone on board will be a long and arduous process.

Zumbox’s service is free and it aims to make money from direct marketers, charging them 5 cents per mailing, with volume discounts.

Non-profit and government organisations can use its tools and database of US addresses for free – allowing, for example, a congressman to mail everyone in his district.

While Zumbox is just launching, Earth Class Mail has been around for some time, but I noticed last week it had opened a physical store on Market Street, here in San Francisco.

I considered using Earth Class Mail to redirect my post when I moved from the UK. It becomes the recipient and opener of your mail, which it scans and alerts you to. You can read it online and choose to have the hard copy sent to you or shredded or recycled.

There would seem to be no use for a physical store, but Earth Class Mail says the Market Street one and others around the country allow users – businesses in particular – to claim them as their own upmarket addresses for a fee.

There still seems little need for more than a PO Box, but the service also allows users in the area physically to send and receive parcels from the stores – something we are unlikely to see over the internet this side of Star Trek-style teleporting.

What amazes me is that the United States Postal Service has not come up with these hybrid models as it seeks to staunch its losses as paper-based mail steadily declines.

It reported this month that there was a decline of 5.2bn pieces of mail in its December quarter compared with the previous year, down nearly 10 per cent. It showed a $384m loss and predicted that at this rate its 2009 loss would significantly exceed its 2008 one of $2.8bn.

Zumbox and Earth Class Mail allow small businesses to achieve scale in their marketing or give the impression of scale in their presence.

In a similar vein, Telnic, the British internet registry operator opened up its .tel top-level domain this month, targeting small businesses that do not have a web presence.

The new domain name will allow them to have a permanent Yellow Pages-type online listing and simple web address for their contact information, without building a website or paying hosting charges.

So in future, you could find my physical street address at chris.tel, send a virtual letter to it using Zumbox or a real one that Earth Class Mail can scan and send on.

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