Parcel boxes: Is the Mailbox Going the Way of the Rotary Phone?

Everyone has a mailbox. But beneath their everyday veneer, mailboxes are in a state of radical transition.

Just as the rotary phone was replaced by more adaptive technology, your mailbox may soon be at the center of a groundbreaking transformation.

According to Copenhagen Economics, mail volumes are decreasing at a rate of roughly 3 percent per year across most of Europe.

Research by Accenture suggests that mail will decline 44 percent by 2020. This level of decline, using figures from 2009 as a baseline, would amount to a loss of 297.2 billion pieces for the world’s top 26 postal agencies.

Mailboxes, originally designed to receive letters, seem to be less and less useful every day.

In the age of digital communication, physical mail volume is plummeting as invoices, bills, ads, newsletters and more are now available on your computer, your phone or even your watch.

Who needs mail when you have an app for that?

But as mail volume falls, e-commerce and package delivery volume is rising. People receive more and more goods direct to their door, skipping the store in favor of online ordering.

This game-changing switch from mail volume to package volume has in turn highlighted one of the rarely discussed quirks of the mailbox: that only postal services have legal or privileged access to it.

You deserve better

This mailbox monopoly, of sorts, may seem irrelevant for end consumers, but because online shoppers rarely receive all of their goods through a single delivery agent, it limits the ability of consumers to rely on a secure delivery point for all e-commerce companies.

It may benefit postal operators to limit mailbox use – a vestige of a time before computers even existed, let alone e-commerce – but the people who actually own and use mailboxes deserve better.

They deserve choices, such as the parcel box in Europe – a secure, convenient, efficient and sustainable solution for all. And in Singapore, they are even developing open standards to ensure fair competition among logistics providers under the government’s planned Federated Parcel Locker System.

Let’s examine the case of the parcel box in Europe. Imagine a secure, larger receiving box for parcels at each home or business near your home, potentially with electronic and network connectivity.

No more need to have all of your packages delivered to work for the sake of security and getting requisite signatures – that’s why you have the parcel box.

Consumers prefer receiving their packages at home, including 68 percent of residents in Europe and 54 percent of residents in Asia, according to the 2015 UPS Pulse of the Online Shopper study.

Parcel boxes enable delivery operators to securely drop off package volume in the absence of consignees. Parcel boxes also facilitate return services, allowing consumers to easily send back packages they no longer need.

The parcel box of the future

What the mailbox did for letter mail, the parcel box of the future could do for e-commerce volume.

But current regulations throughout Europe, relative to mailbox access, placement of boxes in communities and a lack of shared standards have limited full deployment of the parcel-box concept.

Operators like UPS support the parcel box because it improves service quality and internal efficiency. Parcel boxes reduce second delivery attempts, consolidate pick-up and delivery trips and ensure the security of all packages.

This means less time on road, fuel savings, less emissions, lowered cost of service and greater customer satisfaction.

Ease of returns also benefits e-retailers, as 72 percent of online shoppers are more willing to place an order if the retailer offers a simple return solution.

With so many benefits, parcel boxes seem like a no-brainer. But as mentioned, various regulations and old ways of doing business are holding up solutions that could be of real benefit to end consumers like you and me.

Parcel boxes ease the burdens associated with online shopping but would require improvements to IT system connectivity and device standards, not to mention agreement between governing bodies.

Plus, because postal operators have the potential to benefit from a mailbox monopoly as they pursue their own e-commerce strategies, some of the solutions might be opposed to preserve outdated perks.

But this kind of inaction only hurts consumers. The mailbox is already on the decline, and it’s time for the shared parcel box to take its rightful place.

A previous version of this article first appeared on UPS Longitudes, a blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy