In late July, Meaghan Thomas shipped a spice bundle from her Louisville, Kentucky, business, Pinch Spice Market, to a customer in Chicago. It arrived in the Windy City the next day — then sat at the post office for well over a week, before eventually getting to the customer’s door.
“This would normally have been a 2-day shipment,” Thomas says.
Of course, things with the United States Postal Service aren’t normal right now.
A series of sudden, recent changes — banned use of overtime, overall service reductions and dismantled mail-sorting machines, to name a few — has caused significant slowdowns in service. And even though Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced that changes would be suspended until after Election Day, there are ripple effects — among them, delayed orders from small businesses like Thomas’.
Still, she says, her Chicago order fared better than the one lost entirely in a nearby sorting center, never to be found. “We offered to send another one at no cost, right away. But by that point, [the customer] just wanted a refund — and I don’t blame her,” Thomas says. “I hope we didn’t lose that customer for good.”
A Crisis, in Practice
As of last year, 70 percent of America’s microbusinesses (defined as businesses with 10 employees or less) used the USPS for all of its shipping needs — with the majority of entrepreneurs polled citing package safety and service reliability as deciding factors.
That was before DeJoy, a former businessman and current Republican Party donor — he gave over $1 million each to President Donald Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns — assumed control of the independent government agency in June. He began his tenure with the aforementioned service cuts and reductions, which caused significant delivery delays in at least 19 states.
Some believed the shifts were designed to hurt citizens’ ability to vote by mail — a vital service during a global pandemic — due to DeJoy’s connections to Trump, who has repeatedly tried to undermine the USPS. Though DeJoy largely rolled them back, he had to testify about them before the U.S. Senate, and the USPS inspector general announced plans to investigate. Several state attorneys general are launching their own investigations into whether he violated election laws, and numerous individuals have already filed lawsuits against him.
In the meantime, service delays persist — as do entrepreneurs’ concerns.
Prior to these recent developments, Thomas recalls feeling fortunate, with her company actually growing during the pandemic as home cooking continues to be all the (necessary) rage. But when packages took longer or went missing, customer satisfaction plummeted — instead of getting spices within 1 to 3 days, people were receiving them over a week later.
“As far as most customers are concerned, we are the cause of the delay — it’s just how consumers think, and we understand that,” Thomas says. Press coverage of the problem has helped somewhat with public perception, she adds, but even those who understand the situation are opting to get store-bought spices to save time.
Thomas adds plainly, “It really stinks that our growth could be negatively affected if the [USPS] continues to be used as a political pawn by the current administration.”
Meanwhile, business owner Susannah Caviness is seeing the effects in dollars and cents.
She’s the founder of Atlanta-based Tower Press, which designs and makes custom business cards, promotional items and apparel for other small firms. And to date, she had turned to the USPS for all of her shipping needs. But in all, she says the recent crisis has cost her roughly $1,100 in lost products. “It’s really hard on a small business, especially during a pandemic when business volume is not what it has been,” Caviness says.
Before the problems began, Caviness saw the USPS as a cost-effective option whose complimentary package pickups were a godsend — especially in the era of Covid-19, when “going inside a busy post office is not something I feel comfortable doing all the time.”
But last month, customer complaints began to pour in as orders were delayed or lost, and those package pickups started taking weeks, instead of hours, for the USPS to fulfill. And because her products are custom-made, replacing those lost orders “isn’t as easy as going to the shelf and repackaging an item, like you would in retail,” Caviness notes.
“And who knows how long I will have to wait for my [lost package] claims to clear,” she adds — since those, too, are processed by mail.
Attempts to Rise Above
Pinch Spice Market’s Thomas says she and her team now drop off packages at the main post office in Louisville, in the hopes of chipping away at the 5 to 10 percent of her shipments that are now consistently delayed or lost.
And for larger orders, she has switched to UPS — a more expensive, but presently more reliable option. “We don’t want any of our customers’ orders to be delayed, but especially not our high-volume clients,” she explains, adding that she’s considered switching entirely to a private shipping service until the situation is resolved.
Caviness understands. “I have so much respect for postal workers. I know they are working hard and know the blame isn’t on those on the ground,” she says. But while she wants to support them, “I can’t lie and say I haven’t thought about making the very hard switch to another service.”
It’s a measure she hopes to avoid. “These are difficult times for everyone,” Caviness says. “My fingers are crossed that the [USPS] can continue to get the support it needs, so that we all can get the same support we need.”