Wednesday, 24 February 2010

US Post Office Queues: The Impatience of The Long Distance Swapper?

Having re-tested that Damien Bash perfume the other day I realised how little of it I owned, and Lovethescents kindly tipped me off about a decant seller on Scent Splits. My heart fell on reading the following disclaimer:

"I no longer ship internationally because these require a trip to the counter (long lines) as opposed to an automated machine (NO lines)."

Now I have been to the States a dozen or more times, and on each occasion I have visited a post office at least once: in big metropolitan areas like NYC, Boston and LA, and in smaller towns everywhere in between. I do remember having to queue, but not excessively. You have to queue at POs in the UK too, and the story is the same in Germany and France, Belgium and Poland - wherever I go in fact, unless you are talking a tiny sub-postoffice in Jutland or Ireland, say. But maybe it is a question of degree. A 45 minute queue would be jolly offputting, granted. 15-20 minutes is commonplace over here eg at lunchtimes, just before closing or on pension and benefit days, but I will put up with that.

So do the US sellers and swappers who won't touch international transactions all live in towns or cities with terrible service in their POs? I cannot rule out that possibility. Or do some of them perhaps have low boredom thresholds, such that they cannot bring themselves to wait for any length of time?

Now there are many US-based swappers and sellers who will do business with Europe - I have myself executed about 40 swaps with US-based fumeheads. So I am thinking either they have lightly used POs or considerably more patience. Another factor may well be the desirability and replicability of the trade: what value of items does this person want to buy from me / what prized wish list samples is the swapper offering me to make it worth my while queuing at the counter? And can I sell/swap for these items just as easily within the USA?

In summary, I cannot pass judgement on this reluctance to visit post office counters as I am not in possession of the full facts. People may quite simply not NEED to trade with European perfumistas. Only sometimes I know I have had up to 22 items on a swapper's wish list and still they have declined the swap.

For some people it may not be impatience which is holding them back from international trades so much as a fear of the unknown, for example where they mostly use their workplace's postroom to send mail, and are not accustomed to visiting a Post Office. Here is one swapper from MUA:

"I looked at the weigher at work, and it won't let me input an int'l address; it only lets me send to the US."

This unfamiliarity with external post offices may be compounded by concerns about the practice of "creative customs labelling"; this can be a moral dilemma too far for some, as in the case of the same swapper:

"So I asked our carrier at work, who I've known for years, and he suggested I take the box unsealed to the post office because of the laws and how strict they are about what's being shipped to certain countries. He said if they have any questions about what's being sent, they seize the package. Oye!!....I think I'm just too much of a 'rule follower' for intl shipments."

Well, hey, I can't knock somebody for their integrity, however frustrating to me on a personal level when a swapper has a particular lemming of mine! I guess I am more of a pragmatist in such matters, especially if the rules don't seem to make a lot of sense. After all, what are the chances of perfume samples causing an explosion or fire in transit? With all that bubble wrap around it which it is customary to put, I'd say it was damn near impossible...

But for those sellers and swappers whose only beef is the queues, may I draw their attention to the following list of services reportedly offered by these USPS Automated Postal Centers or APCs.

"Some of the features of the APCs are: weighing and rating letters, flats and parcels up to 70 pounds. Dispensing variable rate postage in any denomination for Express, Priority, First Class, Certified mail, International (under a pound) and Parcel Post."

Okay, so "under a pound" may not cover shipments of full bottles, but it would include the vast majority of sample swaps that I have transacted with US-based MUA members.

And then there is the online service of the USPS itself, where you print off your own postage. If I have correctly understood the site, there is the option of free pick up from home of the parcel you wish to send when your regular mail is delivered. I had a look at the "first class international" rates and they appear to be eligible for the self-printed postage. Ditto customs labels etc. You would need to weigh the item, but most people own kitchen scales, even indifferent cooks like me.

And meanwhile - after all that - I may have found a source of Lucifer No 3 in the UK...


Ines said...

I am lucky that I have a small PO on my way to work where there is almost no queue ever. But if I ever get to the one in the centre of the city, the wait is quite longer.
And I have to say I'm now seriously prejudiced against those swappers with no international swap rule (up to now those were only US based). I've been swapping all over the (including Singapore and Hong Kong) and everything was always fine.

moviegrrl said...

The Perfumed Court do decants of Lucifer No 3 AND they ship to the UK AND they're lovely.
(Just in case your UK source doesn't hold up)
Of course shipping isn't cheap so I usually buy more than one thing... ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Ines, I have had great swaps too with Singapore and Australia, also Canada - the main stumbling block seems to be with the US.

Ah, Sarah, that is where my present 2.5ml sample is from, and the 1ml sample before it! I was just looking for a more economical way to purchase 5-10ml, say. But TPC is always a good standby if other avenues don't work out.

The Left Coast Nose said...

Well, this is a timely post, and, as ever, FS, you are most observant on the relevant details.

As I've experienced the USPS in my 42 years on earth, it's had its ups and downs-- when I was a kid it was a laughingstock. Then, once it got some real competition from the overnight services (FedEx, etc.) it kinda got a spine and became quite good for a few 2 decades. It knew what it was for: delivering regular mail pretty darn regularly. Let the flashy new kids deliver stuff *overnight* if you need it, but we'll make sure things like your bills and junk mail get to you pretty much every single day whether you want it or not.

Then came email. Whether that was a blow the USPS would ever recover from, I can't say. Epic contractions in mail service with things like online billing threatened its core purpose severely.

But what I can say is now that we are in the Great Recession, the USPS has fallen off a cliff: hugely under funded, understaffed, under siege, with terrible morale problems. I HATE going to our local post office now, and every time I go out of my way to seek out another, I may not have had an altercation with the harried, unloved, burned-out postal worker behind the counter (yet), but the long, long lines are the same.

Oh, yes. And the squeamishness about shipping internationally, esp. if one is sending off a box that, if seized and opened, might have containers with fluids inside that might be misconstrued as bomb-making parts. We are AT WAR, see, (The "War on Terror," as we call it here) and for us, that is Life in Wartime. Kinda like gas rations during the last Big One, only kinda not.

I'm not prone to caring a good d*mn about rules that I know to be ludicrously broad, such as not shipping teeny-tiny bottles with itsy-bitsy trace amounts of alcohol inside, but even I have sweat a few bullets standing in line shipping samples overseas.

So that's one woman's view from here.

Unknown said...

It's best I don't get started on this subject lest purple blotches and small throbbing veins appear on my face.

Thing is, living in a country you could practically throw a stone across as I do, most if not all of my swaps are international. I refuse to accept that it's less of a hassle for me to ship internationally than it is for someone located in the US.

I remain convinced that the most important reason is the lack of any pressing need to ship out of the US; with a huge national perfume-swapping pool, why bother? Can't argue with that, really. I'd just appreciate someone to have the courtesy of admitting that.

Then again, as you say: I don't live there, I don't live it, so who knows. Just gets frustrating, now and again.

Mals86 said...

US resident here to comment on USPS:

You might remember that I live in quite a semi-rural small town. It's open from 9am to 5pm, and there's no automated service counter (boy, that thing looks cool! wish we had one of those) - one must talk to the clerk. My carrier will pick up letters from my mailbox, which is half a mile from my house, by the way, but not packages; "They might be wrong," she says. "Take them to the post office yourself, please." That may not be the official USPS policy, but it's what I have to deal with.

When you take a parcel to the PO to mail it, the clerk will ask you, "Is there anything hazardous, breakable, liquid, or illegal in your package?" I have learned the hard way not to say, "Yes, it's perfume samples." If I do, the clerk says, "Well, I can't take that." Again, I think that the official USPS policy is to ship it, but not by air. (These days I just lie. And hope nobody opens it and decides to prosecute me for sending liquid in the mail.)

And it's not the case for me anymore, but I remember the days when I was dragging young children along with me on every errand. Difficult? Ohhh yes. I don't know that that's the case with your reluctant swapper, but facing the post office with a 5yo, a 2yo, and a baby in tow was so daunting that I'd rather file my nails with a buzz saw. Eek.

Vanessa said...

Thanks guys for giving me the lowdown on the postal service in your neck in the woods. I will completely defer to those of you living in the US as to the real situation on the ground, and I knew this post was likely to provoke a lively debate.

I think Arachne is probably right that many swappers/sellers don't need to complicate their lives by shipping overseas, and the long lines are a genuine gripe in certain areas.

I would like to know the reasons why those who do swap internationally do so. Is it to access rare things? Or because they have low traffic in their local POs, are of a placid disposition, or maybe because they wish to actively nurture international relations. Actually, the last one is not so daft: I have done two swaps with a perfumista in Virginia whose town has the same name as mine, and I like the thought of our being "civic twins" as well as being united by this hobby.

Mals - thanks for pointing out the sparse distribution of these APC machines and the hit or miss observance by USPS staff of the "collect from home" facility! And I do take the point that having young children in tow would be a major deterrent to spending undue amounts of time queuing anywhere.

There may be a few more views to come: over a quarter of the blog's readership is in the US (or was, until today...)

Ines said...

:) It really is interesting the things one hear from PO clerks. Where I go, the women used to ask what was in the package and if it was going to US, I had to fill a paper that nothing dangerous is in (I always put cosmetic samples) and sign it. It was only for US. Now they no longer ask nor do I need to fill the paper and the packages arrive without a problem.
I think it really depends on the clerk because there is one guy in that PO who always admonishes me for not bringing the bubble envelope open even though one of his colleagues told me that is only valid for packages.

Vanessa said...

Yes, Ines, it is interesting about the differing responses of PO clerks. I guess there will be those who are more or less keen to operate according to the letter of the law just like the rest of us wanting to send perfume. : - )

LCN, you raise the question of whether the USPS is relatively more worried than other postal authorities about the possibility of packages containing bomb making ingredients. I think you may be on to something there, for there is a heightened awareness of terror at the moment, notably in the US.

lovethescents said...

Now, what annoys MOST, is when I get swap requests from people who have clearly written, "no international swaps" as their guidelines....(usually in the US). It isn't fair. Okay, I'll stop now..

Hebe said...


I used to be nervous about sending perfume overseas, but have mitigated that to benefit from the very good prices that Ormonde Jayne scents fetch on ebay from an international audience. I'm still a bit bothered by all the Canadian Customs horror stories and probably wouldn't ship anything there.

I did say no international swaps on MUA because the nature of the swaps I was being offered didn't really seem to justify the environmental cost of shipping them. In less harsh terms, I didn't see the point of all those air miles for a scent that I could find with a bit of effort on the high street. I know that the planes are flying anyway, but it still seemed a bit unnecessary. I'm sure if I'd been offered the right samples then I would have found a way to bend my principles. In the end I didn't need to, due to a very lovely and generous UK swapper ;)

Post Office queues. As a fairly regular ebayer I just live with them. 8am is a very quiet time but it's rare that we make it out that early. Normally I load my two year old into either a shopping trolley seat (our PO is inside a supermarket) or into a sling so she can chat to everybody in the queue and flirt shamelessly with the cashier. For bigger parcels I adore Parcelforce, and having them collect the parcel from my house.

Vanessa said...

LTS, I know what you mean about those one-sided international swaps. Not cricket!

Hebe, you introduce an environmental angle to this debate, and I have declined swaps where the US swapper is after a sample of Miss Dior Cherie, say, or something she could so easily find and sample in a mall over there. It does seem perverse to spend £1.28 or whatever in postage to send one sample 4000 miles. The ratio of postage to samples received - sometimes only one is suggested - and the general faff factor of getting the parcel together are also important factors in my turning down such swaps, but the carbon footprint is a glaring reason in certain instances.

It was also interesting to get your take on childcare in PO queues... And you have someone collect parcels from your house! See, I didn't even know that was possible in the UK.

Hebe said...

Yes, slightly o/t here, but I use Parcelforce for anything too large for standard first class that needs to be signed for on receipt, as Royal Mail don't offer a signed for service on larger packages. The last one was a framed backpack baby carrier, absolute bliss to have it picked up from the house. Rather less bliss to pack it so that its girth (2xwidth plus 3xheight) was less than 3metres.

Going back to perfume, it seems quite bizarre to send a sample from the US that probably originated from a European factory in the first place (it would be interesting to know where European scents for the US market are manufactured).

Vanessa said...

Good question, Hebe, and one I have also wondered about. I know the Guerlains are shipped over from France, because I once inquired about their provenance.

I can now confirm that my new purchase of a 10ml decant of Damien Bash Lucifer No 3 is setting off up the M1 tomorrow from its current location in North London. : - )

lady jicky said...

I have just started selling some things on ebay and I am not looking forward to taking all the parcels to my post office either!
I hope you are not behind me in that line!
I know I will get some "dagger" looks when my daughter and I have to post them off (if they sell) in a couple of days! LOL
NO - not selling perfume (should not post through our mail but.. I sort of sneeky do) but I am having a clean out of the china (I am a big collector of china - like perfume it makes me happy) that does not "do it" for me anymore.
Our post offices in Australia have long lines too! Rrrrr - because of ebay people I guess! LOL, LOL

Martha said...

OK, I just have to say that I'm feeling more and more justified in my Postal Regulation Phobia. I'm just saying.

But I can truthfully say that I don't discriminate by country. I'm too terrified to send perfume to anybody at all.

Vanessa said...

Lady J, I'd patiently wait behind you and your parcels of china...well, for 20 mins say, and then there might be a bit of light foot shuffling and the odd sigh.

CF, I find the timorousness caused by your PRP (for which some hypnotherapists may offer treatment as a "speciality condition") strangely endearing. I shouldn't really, but I do. You do after all say that you are "chicken".

Carol said...

For everyone! I did some research (I'm in the U.S.) and here's what the Inspector General says about fragrance samples

Fragrance Advertising Sample
A fragrance advertising sample (39 USC 3001(g)), i.e., any matter normally acceptable in the mail but containing a fragrance advertising sample, is permitted in the mail only if it is sealed, wrapped, treated, or otherwise prepared in a manner reasonably designed to prevent individuals from being unknowingly or involuntarily exposed to the sample. A sample meets this requirement if it uses paper stocks with a maximum porosity of 20 Sheffield units or 172 Gurley-Hill units treated exclusively with microencapsulated oils, and if the sample is produced so that it cannot be activated except by opening a glued flap or binder or by removing an overlying ply of paper.

So in essence (no pun intended) we CAN send samples in the mail! You just have to make sure it's really tightly secured in its wrapping.

Read more about everything us American can and cannot send here:

Vanessa said...

Hi Bloody Frida, having read around I think that the clause you found on the USPS site refers just to those paper strips you get in magazines, hence the references to paper quality.

I have gone off this regulation in the past which does permit the sending of samples of no more than $5 in value - unfortunately I would normally exceed that value in a typical swap scenario. The regs don't forbid the sending of perfume per se, only you may get clobbered for the duty - as I have been, when buying scent from US-based perfumers who (quite properly) declare the true contents of their shipments.

3. How do I send parcels/gifts to the U.S. from abroad?
Be sure to fill out the international customs declaration with a full, accurate description of the goods inside and attach it to the parcel's exterior.
Bona fide, unsolicited gifts will clear Customs duty-free as long as their fair retail value does not exceed $100 and the recipient does not receive more than $100 worth of gifts in the same day. There is no duty waiver for shipments containing alcohol-based perfume or tobacco products unless the entire shipment is worth less than $5 retail.

The Left Coast Nose said...

Ok-- late to follow up, and maybe this conversation has played itself out, but I don't want to let My Fellow Americans off the hook for their general laziness about shipping overseas. I think there are really sound reasons to be wary about shipping perfume, given how humorless our federal government has become on All Things Terror, and the long lines and lousy service are a real drag.

But truth be told, I think a lot of Americans are just lazy, and the thought of having to fill out an international customs form, with an international address in a format they are not used to, is just too much work for lots of people.

Oh, yes, and FlitterSniffer-- "faff"? And "Not cricket"? Can I come study you?

Vanessa said...

I sense that the "fear of the unknown" I allude to above and your "laziness" theory may be related...

And sure, come study me any time! And it works both ways: Lovethescents taught me "call it George" meaning "quits". That had me royally foxed for a while.

Carol said...

oh is my face red - here I thought I found something useful. And I agree w/LCN about laziness.

Vanessa said...

An easy mistake to make! : - )