17 years ago
By JAMES FALLOWS
MILLIONS of people now rent their movies the Netflix way. They fill
out a wish list from the 50,000 titles on the company's Web site and
receive the first few DVD's in the mail; when they mail each one back,
the next one on the list is sent.
The Netflix model has been exhaustively analyzed for its disruptive,
new-economy implications. What will it mean for video stores like
Blockbuster, which has, in fact, started a similar service? What will
it mean for movie studios and theaters? What does it show about "long
" businesses -- ones that amalgamate many niche markets, like those
for Dutch movies or classic musicals, into a single large audience?
But one other major implication has barely been mentioned: what this
and similar Internet-based businesses mean for that stalwart of the
old economy, the United States Postal Service.
Every day, some two million Netflix envelopes come and go as
first-class mail. They are joined by millions of other shipments from
online pharmacies, eBay vendors, Amazon.com and other businesses that
did not exist before the Internet.
The eclipse of "snail mail" in the age of instant electronic
communication has been predicted at least as often as the coming of
the paperless office. But the consumption of paper keeps rising. (It
has roughly doubled since 1980, with less use of newsprint and much
more of ordinary office paper.) And so, with some nuances and internal
changes, does the flow of material carried by mail. On average, an
American household receives twice as many pieces of mail a day as it
did in the 1970's.