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Efficient and Attractive: Believe It Or Not, It's the US Post Office

BILL MEUSE points to shelves of prepackaged stamps and mailing supplies displayed along his post office wall - everything from envelopes and postcards to dozens of different stamps. The ``wildflowers'' have been the most popular commemorative stamps, he says, ``but then there's Elvis, and who gets tired of Elvis?''

Mr. Meuse is manager of the new Postal Retail Store that opened in August in Boston's Prudential Center. His store is one of 48 Postal Retail Stores nationwide opened by the United States Postal Service (USPS) since 1989. The Postal Retail Stores are anything but typical. Forget long lines and mug shots on the walls. These new stores sport 20th century efficiency and decor.

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Rather than wait in the full-service line, customers can select stamps, collectibles, and mailing supplies directly off shelves and purchase them at cash registers located on the sales floor. This new system has greatly reduced lines at the full-service counter, and that, Meuse contends, has been good for business. (According to the USPS, 40 percent of customers standing in the full-service line are buying commemorative stamps.)

During their first year of operation, Postal Retail Stores nationwide have increased profits, on average, 65 percent compared with traditional post offices, says Nancy Wood, program manager for the project at USPS headquarters in Washington. Some stores have seen 200 percent to 300 percent increases, she adds.

In an effort to improve customer service and boost its corporate image, the Postal Retail Store has become ``the new standard for post offices across the country,'' says Elizabeth Lerch, program architect.

``We're trying to establish a corporate identity - a corporate professional experience for our customers that makes it convenient and easy for them to do business with us,'' Ms. Wood says.

The Postal Service, which has 35,000 post offices nationwide, plans to open 200 to 300 Postal Retail Stores a year for the next five years, Wood says. Some of the stores will be newly constructed and others will be renovations of existing post offices.

Not all of the retail stores will take the form of open merchandising (where merchandise is displayed on shelves), Ms. Wood says, but all of the stores will have the same look and concept. ``This [store] goes a long way in perception alone,'' Meuse says. ``It's brighter, [and] it's larger than most traditional post offices.''

THE stores, which sport a red, white, and blue decor (the USPS's corporate colors), carry the same products and provide the same services as traditional post offices: computerized scales for customers to weigh packages, vending machines to purchase stamps, post office boxes for rent, plus a full-service counter. But the new layout encourages self-service.

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``You can do more by yourself,'' says Boston resident Monica Matthews, standing at one of the self-service counters pasting mailing labels onto her packages. She says she is a regular customer.

``I haven't got a clue as to how it works, but I'm fascinated by all of the stamps,'' says Francis Johnson of Arlington, Mass., browsing through the store for the first time. ``It's a nice way to be competitive with all of the other mailing [stores],'' she adds.

And competing with the competition, such as United Parcel Service Inc., Federal Express Corporation, and private postal service centers such as Mail Boxes Etc., is part of the plan. ``As a company, we're doing a much better job of marketing than we've ever done before,'' Meuse says. ``It's a new focus because there is competition out there, for one thing.''

The USPS originally dubbed its Postal Retail Store the ``Store of the Future,'' Wood says. But when the USPS started building so many stores, the idea was no longer ``future.''

The retail stores ``also bring something to [employees' jobs] that wasn't necessarily there, and that is self-marketing,'' Meuse says. Postal employees working in the retail stores must complete a training course on merchandising and customer service.

Post offices that will not come up for renovation under the retail store plan, Wood says, will be ``moderately updated'' under a new project that the Postal Service hopes to roll out sometime in fiscal year 1995.

The USPS has also launched ``Project Pride,'' a program to bring all US post offices up to ``minimum standards'': that includes removing clutter from the walls, cleaning the floors, and painting the post offices with the USPS's corporate colors.

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