Death of USPS Surface Mail ( & the M-Bag )?

If you are not sure what an M-Bag is (or what it was), it is defined by the USPS. It has, at least in its previous life, been a topic of conversation on Nicaliving, and can be found here, here, and here, too - and probably elsewhere on this site.

Note: The term "M-Bag" is not the most-used identifier for the bag or the service; it is now, at least in USPS notices and rate-guides, usually referred to as "Direct Sack To One Address", USPS IMM-260 - though what people used to mean by "M-Bag" might now be known as the deceased "Economy M-Bag". It is confusing and the true merits of the service appear now to have been lost.

The original USPS proposal prior to the last rate-hikes and changes was to eliminate all surface mail delivery, which would have, by definition, also put an end to the M-Bag in any way, shape, or form. While all basic surface mail (a.k.a. "boat rate" delivery) was eliminated on May 14th, 2007, the M-bag may or may not have been saved, even if temporarily (though with a massive price increase; see the end of this post for details). I say "may or may not" because evidence on the web and at the post is not always one and the same.

The full USPS IMM (International Mail Manual) can be found here, and the "M-Bag" is entry 260, indicated above. Country-specific data can be found on this entry for Nicaragua. As you can see, the M-Bag is still listed (way down near the bottom, under the new rates for postcards).

It is hard to believe they would continue surface mail systems only for materials for the blind and M-bags (economy or otherwise) - neither of which seems to justify the associated expenses. Compare / contrast this with the many announcements on the web (many formed in August, 2007, long after the alleged change), bemoaning the death of the latter. Many of these complaints are accompanied by a plea for a return of the original service.

Here is an online petition, updated as recently as August 21st, 2007. This is being used to try to bring back the original, cheap M-Bag. This same general petition can be found around the web, and is of course sponsored by bookstores. It is not just for-profit places lining up the petitions. The U.S. Peace Corps has been a strong critic of the proposed or actual changes; the Peace Corps online site, even includes detailed instructions on how to voice your complaint on the changes, and there is no shortage of in-country complaints and notice of these on official publications The irritation at the changes can be found on the web rather easily, in articles dating near the change-day of mid-May, to complaints from everyone from scholars to record-album collectors - all of whom bemoan the loss of subsidized rates for research and educational (which includes entertainment) materials.

I mention much of this because earlier this summer I sent an M-Bag from South Dakota to Honduras. It arrived last month, without incident (as it always has in the past). I thought perhaps my bag was grandfathered in, and that the service was now dead (as the various web complaints state or imply), since I sent the bag after the change, though at the time I had no idea there was a change and paid the old cheap fees. The other day I shipped a non-M-Bag package to Nicaragua (2lb, 10oz, for $21 - indicating another rate hike in 2007), and I inquired as to the current status of the M-Bag. I was told "no problem", and was shown the bag and forms. I was told it is the only remaining surface mail option under the new USPS system. The kicker, though, were the fees.

I cannot date all previous M-Bag shipments, since once packages arrive safely I normally discard the related paperwork. However, I never remember paying more than $1.50-2.00 for each pound above 10lb minimum. The current stated rate in the IMM and the cliff-notes version I was shown recently, was a whopping $3.95 per pound (just $0.80 less than for-profit Miami=Tegucigalpa drop-shippers charge me). See this link to the online IMM, which confirms the current $4 per pound price, on top of the hefty $44 fee for the first 1-11 pounds. Additionally, recent FAQ files, include M-Bag mentions, and there isn't any good news there, either. I am not sure what will become of the service or the fees, but it is hard to see the justification for keeping a discount bulk service that isn't actually offered at a discount.

So, if you used this service in the past, or would like to do so in the future (at a more reasonable price), or think it should exist for charitable or educational purposes, you might consider the online petition linked above. The recent changes have completely undermined the intended benefit of the discounted M-Bag, namely the delivery of books and media.

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Mail rates

A few weeks ago I was looking at Post Office rates for sending internationally. What I found was that there were rates from Canada to Nicaragua that were significantly lower than rates from the US to Nicaragua. This just looks like another case where the US doesn't want to be competetive (or can't be).

From North America

I am far from an expert on Canadian mail rates, but have not found them to be cheaper than U.S. ones, though this is based only on comparisons from the University of Manitoba (Winnipeg) and the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis), going to either Tegucigalpa or Leon (see way down below; both Honduras & Nicaragua then had the same rates as a destination). It is possible that someone in Toronto or elsewhere would receive a much better rate, but I really don't know about that.

I am not sure "competitive" is really an issue or answer though. Partly, because if someone is sending a letter or small item or small box, then their governmental post office is their only realistic option if price matters (a few photocopies or photographs costs $1-2 via a government post office, but with price minimums is often over $10 via drop-shippers, and can exceed $35 via a private carrier like DHL). Beyond that, government posts are not really competitors with in-country businesses (so heavily subsidized they are not really a business), nor with each other. While people living near a border could hop and ship at a better price, most people can't and wouldn't do this even if it was feasible. Canadian and U.S. posts are really not competing with each other in ordinary operations.

Regarding the M-Bag (at least in its original form), this cheap rate was actually subsidized by other non-discounted international parcel rates. To the best of my knowledge, no other country offered a bulk rate anywhere near as cheap as the (now deceased?) U.S. M-Bag – and most countries do not have a discounted rate, unless it is “material for the blind”, etc. Non-discounted rates were another matter, though U.S. rates were competitive, and a deal compared to U.S. private courier rates (depending of what it is and where it is going, U.S. Express mail can sometimes be close to half as much as DHL, UPS, FEDEX, etc). Even amongst government though, it is sometimes hard to compare countries due to the weight categories and the U.S. evasion of the metric system (most countries round up weight – for letters, in grams, to even, standard numbers like 25, 50, 100, etc., figures which don’t correlate well to the rounded oz-tiers from the U.S. system; for example, a kilogram package, right at a cut-off mark in the Canadian system, is 2.2lbs, but that same package would be billed as 3lbs in the U.S., much more than the 2lb weight).

Another reason it is hard to compare is that international rates are still (as far as I know) partly the result of in-country assessment and partly the result of negotiated exchanges. Not all countries re-assess postal rates at the same time of each year, so what often happens is that “Country A” changes rates in December, but this doesn’t effect people in destination “Country B” until their government post adjusts for this the following July 1st, or even after a legislative petition for a rate increase – which might take a year or more to actually happen. Although two countries might be very competitive in general, or even over a decade or two, there also might be a season or major part of one or a few years in which they are not very competitive as one is using the new hike and one hasn't yet implemented it.

I can't swear this data below is 100% accurate, but it was provided to me by the post offices at the two universities, in Manitoba and Minnesota. I believe this stuff was all sent late June-early July of this year. For comparison purposes back then, the prices were all converted to U.S. dollars, this is the base air mail delivery option, and the items were going from the Universities in North America to Leon, Nicaragua:

(1) A 28 gram letter from Manitoba = $1.59 & a 1oz letter from Minnesota = $0.90 ; (2) A simple 170 gram envelope from Manitoba = $6.55 & a simple 4oz envelope from Minnesota = $5.40 ; (3) A full size 500 gram envelope from Manitoba = $12.75 & a full size 16 oz envelope from Minnesota = $10.00 ; (4) A 1+kg box 20x20x20cm via Small Packet Air Canada = $44 & a 1+kg box 20x20x20cm via U.S. Priority Mail International = $25 ; (5) A 2.5kg box 30x30x30cm via Int. Parcel Air Canada = $74 & a 2.5kg box 30x30x30cm via U.S. Priority Air Int. = $35 ; (6) A 6kg box 30x30x30cm via Int. Parcel Air Canada = $92 & a 6kg box 30x30x30cm via U.S. Priority Air Int. = $64.

It should be noted that both Posts have other faster rates. The U.S. was much cheaper for a basic 5lb box, regardless of what speed one selected. Per private courier comparison, a 5lb box was U.S. $32 Priority Air (6-9 day delivery), $50 Express Air (5-day), and $198 Global Express (2-3 day). This same 5lb box, as of this summer anyway, Minnesota to Nicaragua was $279, $295, and $315 via FEDEX, UPS, and DHL, respectively (I believe 2-day Air Canada Purolator was $315 also). As much as I complain about the U.S. post prices, they are not bad as you compare to many other countries. Remarkably, it costs me much more to send a package from Honduras to Minnesota than from Minnesota to Honduras.

Per the data above, this all assumes no discounts or business accounts, etc. Again, this is the info from the respective University Posts, and though it correlated with estimates I had generated online, I never tripled-checked everything. If you saw cheap Canada rates, one possibility is that it was Canada's Surface Mail (boat rate) - the same service just eliminated by the U.S. Post. If memory serves, Canadian surface mail is about 50% less than air mail for bulk packages of say 10-40 lbs. The beauty of the M-bag was for book delivery - as books tend to be so heavy

Exactly

Thanks for all the comparison data. It will surely be useful to some people.

I guess I should have been a bit clearer. It was exactly that "Canada still offers surface mail rates" issue that gave me the lower rates.

My experiences with "faster" US rates has been less than good. Letters (air mail) tend to get from the US to Estelí in around 10 days. From England, Spain or France, more like five days. "World Mail" seems to take from 10 to 100 days. One time when I complained about a particular package of books sent by World Mail, the guy in the post office pointed out that they may have been flown from the US to Germany but they then traveled by boat from Germany to Nicaragua.

Another point is that US law does not let courier services compete with USPS first class mail. For example, if you courier something to TransExpress (the Miami end of Interlink of Costa Rica and Nicabox of Nicaragua) and ask them to send it on via USPS, they must hold it for 72 hours first.

When I was teaching classes at the IRS in Washington DC I noticed they used FedEx to send "letters". I asked and they explained that while the regular rate for FedEx was around $10, they had a contract where they paid less than $2 for the same service.

While I am not for de-regulation of "the mail", I also think there are some serious regulation that helps the USPS remain no-competative. I can, for example, air-freight something between the US and Costa Rica or Nicaragua for less than $1/lb. It seems there is room for additional options, law permitting.

Loco

You are defenetly a loco. Who in the right mind would want to walk alone in those bad areas of Managua? especially at night. You were looking for trouble and you sure got it.Be thankful to God you came out alive.

???

enferma, I woudn't think trying to send an m-bag would be considered looking for trouble, although I have heard that those mail clerks are a nasty gang of thugs and would just as soon cancel stamp your hand as look at you. Oh wait, I bet you must have been confused (maybe not in your right mind) and posted this in the wrong place.

I think

Enfermera's post was meant for "Sunday bloody sunday"

I realize that

I guess my attempt at humor was lacking something.

Moving posts

Based on what else has been posted lately, I'm guessing this was actually a response to a different post.

I've been noticing this "misplaced reply" issue happening once in a while since the site upgrade. Not sure if it's related or not.

thanx

for the info. I just had my daughter send down some magaines ¨cheapest rate¨¨. They came first class and cost a fortune. Doesn´t seem the Post Office likes books anymore.

¨¨patas de perro¨¨