The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is now testing a system to sell stamps over the Net, but the service won't be available until after consumers mail out an estimated 5 billion cards and presents this holiday season.
The "virtual post office" is expected to go live early next year, letting visitors use their credit cards to buy stamps online via various encryption-protected transaction protocols. The USPS said today that the service is being tested by 2,300 customers until December 28 to monitor the system's capacity.
"We'll work out any bugs from online ordering to the fulfillment process. The test is also to help us determine how many additional personnel it's going to take to do this," Barry Ziehl, a USPS spokesman, said today.
Buyers purchase stamps by using an online catalog. Stamp orders are processed within five business days through an office in Kansas City that fulfills mail and telephone orders. Domestic stamp orders come with a $1 processing fee, while international orders cost an extra $3.
Although the service won't launch in time for the postal service's busiest month of the year, online ordering will likely be in demand during any season. More than 60 percent of the email messages the USPS receives "indicate a desire to purchase stamps and products online," according to the service.
The government already offers a variety of services online. There are extensive Web sites for federal and state agencies that let visitors download passport applications, for example, or campaign finance records.
Other attempts have failed due to consumer privacy concerns. For example, due to public outcries, the Social Security Administration last spring shut down a one-month-old site that let users get employment histories online. This fall, the agency reinstated the site, but without the lifelong earnings data.
Technical difficulties also have plagued some popular government sites. During tax season last year, traffic the Internal Revenue Service's Web site left many users locked out of certain parts of the site, such as the tax forms section.
Despite a slew of promised services, it has taken the USPS a while to expand its offerings to the Net.
In August, the postal service said it expected to start offering electronic postmarks, email storage, and free email forwarding for those who have a change of address by summer 1998. In addition, postal officials are discussing plans to become a digital certification authority, which authenticate electronic signatures that ensure the true identity of an email sender. (See related story)
A major factor stifling the robust growth of e-commerce is consumers' lack of confidence that their transactions are safe. According to a study released last week by CommerceNet and Nielsen Media Research, 10 million people have made purchases on the Web, but more than half of the 48 million Net users said they would not shop online.
"People are fearful that everyone on the Net will suddenly have access to their name and credit card number if they shop online," Stacey Bressler, CommerceNet's vice president of marketing, said today. "Many of the issues that have inhibited electronic commerce are issues that can be solved with education about the [technologies] that secure transactions and privacy."
The USPS, however, is an online entity new and veteran Net users alike will probably trust, which is good for the entire industry, she said.
"The Postal Service's confidence in online transactions does have a legitimizing effect. Any institution that has been around as long and performed as well over time as the Postal Service has done will probably inspire confidence in the general public," Bressler added.