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SMALL BUSINESS BLUES

America’s smallest businesses rely on the post office for basic, fundamental tasks

REUTERS/Carlos Barria
For some small companies, the USPS is the only shipping option.
Karen Ho
By Karen Ho

Global finance and economics reporter

Opponents of president Donald Trump worry cutbacks at the US Postal Service threaten Americans’ right to vote. Small business owners have more immediate concerns: sending out merchandise and getting paid on time.

While much business correspondence has moved online, 63% of the smallest US companies—those with nine employees or fewer—still rely on the post office for basic tasks, such as sending invoices and receiving checks, according to a 2019 survey from the USPS Office of the Inspector General. Another 53% uses it to send out their products. 

Postmaster general Louis DeJoy this week backed down from his changes to overtime, mail processing hours, and location of collection boxes, but concerns about processing capacities and delayed shipments remain. 

“My business would be impossible without the USPS,” said Elise Matthesen, an art jewelry designer who has sold $100,000 on the Etsy e-commerce platform in the last four years. Payments are taking longer than expected to arrive, and so are deliveries of essential supplies, even when they are sent by Priority Mail. 

Companies with nine employees or fewer, also known as microbusinesses, make up nearly 75% of all US private employers, and employ 10% of Americans working in the private sector, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many of these small businesses are already struggling due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit them disproportionately hard. 

More than 30% of microbusinesses use the post office at least once a week, the Office of the Inspector General survey found. The USPS costs less than competing commercial carriers like FedEx or UPS, and used to be just as reliable. And unlike private shipping companies, it has a constitutional mandate to reach all Americans, regardless of where they live.  

In a plea to increase funding for the post office last month, Etsy CEO Josh Silverman told Congress more than 90% of sellers on the platform use the postal service to ship their products. “It is particularly important for our sellers who live in rural communities, where USPS may be the only carrier available to them,” he wrote

Shipping delays due to service cuts are already hurting small companies, many which are relying more heavily on shipped orders during the pandemic as customers shop online. Business owners who talked to Quartz complained about late payments, missed sales, and higher costs. One unexpected consequence are fish, bugs, and thousands of baby chicks dying in transit because shipping is taking longer than usual.  

Bossy Cosmetics, a Black-owned beauty company, has scaled back international sales because of concerns about missing and late deliveries by the post office. Customers unhappy with the delays have given the company bad online reviews. “We can’t afford any other shipping messes because UPS and FedEx are super expensive,” said Aishetu Fatima Dozie, the company’s CEO and founder. “For us, every cent counts.”

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