- Amazon’s relationship with the US Postal Service has become political fodder in recent years as Trump has demanded USPS to up its rates on the megaretailer.
- Industry experts say Amazon does indeed take advantage of not only USPS’s low rates but also its imperative to deliver to every address in the US.
- Amazon is building delivery stations in only the densest ZIP codes in the US, according to a 2019 Morgan Stanley analysis.
- USPS must handle the rest – and it’s pricey for the agency.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
President Donald Trump is right about one thing: The US Postal Service is charging Amazon below-market rates.
A 2017 analysis from Citi said USPS undercharged package customers like Amazon by $US1.46 per package, a number that R.J. Hottovy, a Morningstar consumer-equity analyst, says holds true today. (The number from the Citi analysis has faced some scepticism, including from former Business Insider columnist Josh Barro.)
But the relationship between Amazon and USPS is more complicated than that blanket number suggests. That’s because the retail giant relies on the quasi-governmental agency, which receives no tax money, to build out its own delivery network.
In addition to relying on carriers like USPS and UPS to deliver packages, Amazon is its own largest delivery company. Amazon, along with dropping off packages at costumers’ homes, is now able to move a good from its factory overseas to your doorstep through an internal network of ocean freighters, trains, planes, and trucks.
This network is not just for Amazon’s internal use. The retailer has developed it to carry non-Amazon packages too. Morgan Stanley recently estimated that Amazon would carry 3.5 billion outside parcels in its network, stealing up to $US100 billion in revenue from UPS, FedEx, and USPS.
In the “final mile,” Amazon delivers about 46% of its own packages, according to a December Morgan Stanley analysis of about 70,000 transactions over nine years. USPS is the second-largest deliverer, moving about 30% of all Amazon boxes, followed by UPS at 17%.
Amazon Prime vans aren’t ubiquitous in all neighbourhoods, though.
Industrywide, 60% of packages go to suburban homes, 20% go to urban areas, and another 20% go to rural places, according to the Morgan Stanley analysis. For Amazon Logistics, just 11% of its packages go to rural homes. Urban (28%) and suburban (61%) areas dominate the package share, Morgan Stanley’s research team said.
Amazon can build a dense delivery network thanks to USPS
Servicing the densest areas is a way for Amazon to keep costs low. But it threatens to bleed out USPS, which has the legal imperative to serve all US addresses – even the low-margin low-density rural neighbourhoods.
“To build a B2C network from scratch, we believe it makes more sense to build a network that only services dense urban areas (the aforementioned 28% of the zip codes) and rely on the USPS or third-party delivery partner to go to rural or other areas with lower delivery density,” Morgan Stanley’s analysts wrote in December.
Building up density is key for any transportation company. Servicing big cities makes it easier for Amazon drivers to, for instance, park their vans and make several dozen deliveries on one block. As areas have fewer and fewer customers in 1 square mile, Amazon would have to spend more and more on sortation costs, fuel, and labour to make deliveries.
To circumvent that, Amazon is building delivery stations in only the densest ZIP codes in the US, according to Morgan Stanley. USPS is largely forced to handle the rest.
Hottovy of Morningstar estimated that delivering a package to a rural home over an urban home costs Amazon anywhere from 1.5 to 4 times as much. “Amazon was able to reduce their cost quite a bit by going to the USPS,” he told Business Insider. “In rural markets, it’s exponentially that much more expensive.”
As long as USPS is around, Amazon won’t deliver to rural areas unless it’s profitable. Hottovy said Amazon wouldn’t likely deliver to rural areas until drone delivery, which may make rural deliveries cheaper, is a reality.
It’s better for USPS to deliver Amazon’s least desirable packages than to deliver nothing at all
Despite this, USPS would be foolish to dump Amazon altogether – or risk losing Jeff Bezos’ business by pushing for a rate increase.
USPS is a business that’s dominated by a fixed cost: a mandated delivery schedule in which people in trucks are delivering at homes and businesses. Nicholas Farhi, a partner at OC&C Strategy Consultants, said that for a fixed-cost business like USPS, its largest customer is usually low margin or even outright unprofitable.
“It’s extremely common for largely fixed cost businesses to appear to ‘make a loss’ on their largest customer, because the alternative, of losing that customer, would have a worse profit outcome than serving them at a lower price,” Farhi told Business Insider in an email.
“This is especially true at roughly the scale of the relationship Amazon has with USPS,” Farhi added. “Amazon is a big enough chunk of USPS revenues that, if USPS lost it, it would materially reduce their revenues without materially reducing their fixed costs.”
In other words, losing Amazon as a customer would decimate the US Postal Service’s revenues but wouldn’t save the company enough money to make up for it.
“Certainly, with their popularity and the amount of packages that are shipped, Amazon has been effectively a lifeline for the post office in a lot of ways,” Hottovy said.