A few days ago, a postal carrier in Pocatello, Idaho, penned a letter to the editor of the Idaho Press-Tribune. In it, he noted that 2017 would once again be a challenge for the U.S. Postal Service. He cautioned that privatizing the USPS would create problems like reducing service to remote rural areas; instead, he suggested “expanding services such as banking, and offering U.S. Mint products.”
The subject of how to save the USPS is a well-gnawed bone, and the complexities are too much for a single blog post to handle—and in any case, this is a blog about coins, not stamps. But the idea of selling Mint products in post offices is an intriguing one.
In numerous countries, coins can already be purchased at the local post office, sometimes at face value, sometimes at a premium. Canada Post is a vendor of Royal Canadian Mint products; the Canada Post’s website sells, for example, the 1/2-ounce silver “Reflections of Wildlife: Arctic Fox” coin for $39.95, the same price posted by the RCM.
Regular Coin Update contributor Michael Alexander, in response to an email query, writes, “In most European countries, commemorative/collector coins which the post office engage in selling are very often just made available over the counter for their face value.” He points to the Netherlands, Spain, Estonia, Germany, and other countries as examples. Depending on the country, coins may be sold over the counter in the post office itself, in kiosks within the post office, or on the post office’s website.
“The nice thing about the practice of selling these collector coins over the counter,” he adds, “is that if you grow tired of the coin or you upgrade to a Proof version through the Mint, you can simply bring it back to the post office and exchange it for cash, as in the Spanish €30 face value silver collector coins. Germany also offer this, first with their silver versions, then with their cupro-nickel pieces which they switched over to a few years ago.” (As an aside, he notes that this has not been the case lately with high-denomination collector coins in the U.K., but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule—and in any case is a subject for another day.)
Of course, a change of this sort in the United States would be difficult, given the fact that the postal service and the Mint are both wholly controlled by the U.S. government, which seems more interested in shackling the two entities’ ankles than allowing them to pursue effective improvements. In the countries mentioned above, the postal service and the mint tend to be state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that perform commercial activity on behalf of the government, but with varying degrees of government ownership and control. (In Canada and other Commonwealth countries, such SOEs are called “Crown corporations.”) The structure of an SOE can vary widely even within a given country, with each company falling somewhere along the spectrum between fully privatized and fully government-owned.
The concept of privatizing the U.S. Mint or the U.S. Postal Service to any degree is loaded with political baggage. Some view it as a way to shake off cumbersome federal processes and develop private-sector nimbleness; others view it as a government attempt to wash its hands of expensive, inconvenient entities that are meant to serve the public while protecting them from the effects of corporate greed. Both sides, of course, have a point. Finding the answer would require (among other things) a thorough study of the various semi-, quasi-, somewhat-privatized structures in countries with successful blends of postal and mint services.
Whatever the structural solution may be, there are also practical considerations. Would selling collector and commemorative coins over the counter make post offices vulnerable to robbery? What about vending-machine sales? In many neighborhoods, self-service postal machines have been removed due to repeated vandalism. Would limiting post-office coin sales, whether over-the-counter or through vending machines, to items of moderate value be sufficient to offset potential problems? If so, what’s the limitation—$25? $50? $100?
Ultimately, the question is this: what kind of setup would benefit all parties—the Mint, the USPS, coin and/or stamp collectors, and everyone in the public who relies on the mail system? To start, let’s consider what each group could really use:
- The Mint needs to expand the collector base to ensure a strong and profitable future.
- The USPS needs money. Badly.
- Collectors would benefit from a chance to see coins in person before they buy (but without having to pay excessive mark-ups on the secondary market). They’d also benefit from being able to take their purchases home right away, and from not having to worry about purchases getting lost in (ahem) the mail.
- The post-office-using public would benefit from the improved services that a better financial base would provide—including, perhaps, price competition with private carriers like UPS and FedEx.
Assuming the stars were aligned and it was legally possible to do so, the Mint could establish a one-year trial program. Collector coins could be sold through a selection of about a dozen well-rated post offices, located in safe areas, with plenty of tellers and ample parking. Select a few coins with solid collector prospects, and give buyers an incentive to purchase the coins at the post office. If the Mint gave the USPS a wholesale rate, with the latter promising not to price the coins lower than the Mint’s purchase-plus-shipping cost, the incentive would be the ability to take coins home as soon as they’re purchased. Alternatively, giving the postal coins a special cover, or a privy-type mark indicating their origin, could be an incentive. Or perhaps the USPS could be free to sell single Proof coins (at a price that wouldn’t compete with Proof Sets).
Michael Alexander concluded his email remarks on an optimistic note: “I could see a lucrative outlet for the U.S. Mint to involve post offices for specific collector-coin items. The American network is so vast, and their distribution is the kind of network any retailer could only dream of. There should be some kind of co-operation to expand the availability of new collector coins, but again, it’s [a matter of] educating their tellers about the coins and developing a way of redeeming them at a later date. I wonder if the post office would make the investment.” ❑