Want to mail a letter? Think again. Many of the Israel Postal Company’s red metal mailboxes throughout the country have been labeled “Inactive,” and their mail slots filled with hardened white foam.
“The world has changed,” said Maya Avishai, spokesperson for the company. “People are sending more emails and fewer letters, so our resources are changing.”
The Israel Postal Company, originally known as the Israel Postal Authority, is a government-owned company that has been undergoing a privatization process for several years, but is still struggling with its recovery plan following a massive strike last October.
As part of that recovery, the company plans to have fewer mail deliveries, eventually dropping to just twice a week, cutting its staff of 5,000 employees and reducing the number of local post office branches and mailboxes.
It may not be worth the effort, said Professor Sam Lehman-Wilzig, chairman of Bar-Ilan University’s School of Communication.
“The issue is whether the older media, in this case the post office, can find ways to adapt itself to a new threat, which is email,” said Lehman-Wilzig. “People stopped sending letters, I almost don’t get any wedding invitations in the mail. So what the post office has been trying to do relatively unsuccessfully is to branch out.”
The post office’s problems are nothing new in the history of communication, said Lehman-Wilzig. Every time there has been a new way of transmitting information, it threatens the older methods and then, when it can’t adapt itself, ends up disappearing.
“Who sends a telegram today?” asked Lehman-Wilzig. “It took several decades for the telegram to disappear, but of course it was the way of communicating electronically for around 50 years. There are no telegrams anymore, and we certainly don’t have the Pony Express.”
And with between 80-90 percent of Israelis on email and smart phones, there’s a very small portion of the population still sending letters, said Lehman-Wilzig.
In fact, only three percent of the mail sent in Israel is from a red mailbox, said Avishai, referring to the classic letter receptacles first put in place during the British Mandate. As of 2014, there were 4,262 red mailboxes around the country. Now, there will be far fewer, around 2,500, and there are already fewer than 100 in Jerusalem.
“We have to have mailboxes within 1,500 meters of homes,” she said, “So we’re doing a new distribution of mailboxes around the country.”
A new beginning, or the slippery slope?
There are other changes afoot, meant to be for the better.
At 100 branches across the country, hours are being extended to 8 p.m. three days a week, and appointments can be made online at 150 branches. (There are 700 branches across the country.) There are now package delivery centers in addition to post office branches, including some at Supersol and Office Depot branches.
There will be also be package deliveries made in the evening, when the majority of the public is at home, said Avishai.
Package delivery is another one of those post office services that has been threatened for the last forty years, said Lehman-Wilzig, ever since private companies like Federal Express began entering the Israeli market, offering faster and more efficient methods of package delivery. With the added ease of digital signatures, there is little to no need to send or pick up packages via the post office, he said.
The post office also handled bulk delivery of junk mail at one time. Today, said Lehman-Wilzig, companies hand 5,000 flyers to delivery people who walk around sticking them in mailboxes and under car windshield wipers, eliminating the need to send them through the mail.
“There’s no more reason for the post office to be, period,” he said.
According to postal spokesperson Avishai, there are no plans to dissolve the former Postal Company.
But to those familiar with the privatization of Israel’s public authorities, the changes being made in the post office look a lot like the usual strategy of the Finance Ministry when it wants to privatize a service, said Joseph Zeira, an economist at the the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“They reduce its budgets gradually, which makes its functioning deteriorate, and then they use it to claim that its service is inefficient and it should be privatized,” he said.
Stamp of disapproval
There are mixed reviews from customers still trying to use the post office.
Jerusalemite No’a Gorlin had a harrowing experience trying to mail bat-mitzvah invitations at a local branch. After paying more for local stamps than she’d anticipated, she ended up sending a portion of invites by Paperless Post when the ones mailed to her next-door neighbors never arrived.
Yitz Woolf, a graphic designer who runs Let’s Bench — a website for creating personalized grace after meals booklets — and frequently uses the post office to ship his packages abroad, found that the Postal Company’s application for reserving an appointment online (only available in Hebrew) worked perfectly.
“I used to sit there for hours, until they introduced the computer kiosk that sent a text message when it was your turn,” said Woolf. “This time I went online to the website, they gave me three days and half-hour increments for choosing a time, and I walked in a minute before my appointment.”
In the online service, customers can click on “Make an appointment” on the right-hand side of the page, which brings them to an application designed by myVisit. The application then finds the customer’s location using GoogleMap, and offers a list of nearby post offices and available times during the morning, afternoon and evenings.
Lehman-Wilzig was underwhelmed. Fact is, he said, “it’s a public authority that’s becoming obsolete, delivering mail only two days a week,” and requiring customers who don’t use the app to stand on line, waiting for service.
That’s what happened to several customers who ended up standing in line at a branch in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood on a recent morning. “I didn’t know about ordering a time online,” said Moshe, a customer who said he had been sitting for over an hour. “It’s the post office, can’t I just walk in?”
The changes and additions are “all about improving service,” insisted Avishai. “There was a slowdown in the beginning, when all the changes were being made,” she acknowledged, “but things are better now.”
Test it out. Send a letter.