So, All Those Nifty Scanners Do What, Exactly?

Guess what the post office doesn't know.

Are postage stamps a dying breed? Between online bill payment and email, you'd think that we're using fewer first-class stamps than a decade ago. You'd also think that someone—say, someone at the U.S. Postal Service—would have the answer. The truth: He doesn't.

The USPS can't say how many stamps are sold or used in any given year. "We know we have less first-class mail volume," says spokesperson Don Smeraldi. But while it tracks overall postage sales, the USPS doesn't record stamp sales per se. That data is lumped in with metered mail and other counter sales.

The problem: Individuals, who account for most purchases, buy stamps in odd lots. Requiring postal workers to record every stamp sold, Smeraldi says, would make slow post-office visits even slower.

The USPS does track first-class stamps printed—up 23% from 1998—but that data isn't too meaningful, since no one knows how many of those get to consumers. And although the post office destroys unsold stamps, it doesn't count them beforehand.

And yes, it does seem embarrassed by this.

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