Plummeting mail volume. Bad press. Losses topping $3.2 billion in a single quarter. If the U.S. Postal Service is going to survive, let alone thrive, in the age of digital communication, "it has to take innovation seriously," says Steve Hutkins, a professor at New York University and founder of SavethePostOffice.com That means thinking beyond the solutions being debated in Congress--shuttering offices, reducing health care costs, eliminating Saturday delivery--and fundamentally reshaping its business. But what could a 21st century post office actually do? TIME gathered outside-the-mailbox ideas from economists, bloggers, overseas postal workers and more.
1 SELL MARKETING SOLUTIONS
To supplement its new Every Door Direct Mail program, which allows small businesses to target specific mail routes, the Postal Service could help customers create promotional materials. It could also partner with a tech company to offer e-marketing, says Kenneth Wisnefski, founder of online-marketing firm WebiMax.
2 Expand the retail product line
Forget stamps and envelopes. The post office could sell a range of products from cell phones to insurance to computers, much as it does in the U.K.
3 OFFER BASIC FINANCIAL SERVICES
In Europe, postal services offer bonds, credit cards and mortgages--a great way to earn extra money. And it's not unprecedented in the U.S.: from 1911 to '67, the USPS let people buy certificates of deposit while earning 2% interest.
4 PROVIDE RURAL INTERNET ACCESS
Some 3,400 rural post offices are connected to the Internet via satellite, meaning the USPS has one of the largest satellite networks in the country. It could sell Web access to remote communities, suggests Hutkins. Post offices also could host pay-as-you-go Internet cafs.
5 EMBRACE DIGITAL MAIL
Postal services in Australia and Sweden can digitally convert hard-copy mail and deliver it to secure e-mail accounts (read: no spam!) and vice versa. Stateside, the Government Accountability Office has already suggested that the USPS follow suit.
6 TURN POSTAL TRUCKS INTO ROVING LABS
The post office's 213,881 mail trucks traverse the entire country, meaning they could gather vital information about weather patterns and air-pollution levels, suggests Michael Ravnitzky of the Postal Regulatory Commission. The USPS could even lease truck space to other federal agencies and eventually to businesses like Google Maps.