WASHINGTON — The Internet has been blamed for the death of the mail, but now it’s offering hope to the beleaguered U.S. Postal Service.
Amazon was set to announce Monday that it will begin Sunday deliveries using the government agency’s fleet of foot soldiers, office workers and truck drivers to bring packages to homes seven days a week.
To accommodate the online retailing giant, the Postal Service said it will for the first time deliver packages at regular rates on Sundays. Previously a shipper had to use its pricey Express Mail service and pay an extra fee for Sunday delivery.
The initiative will begin immediately in Los Angeles and New York and spread to much of the rest of the nation next year, Postal Service officials said. The partnership should help the turnaround effort underway at the financially strapped Postal Service, they said.
The USPS has seen its volume of letters drop by half in the past decade as Americans increasingly pay bills online and use Web chat, texting and social media to stay in touch. The Postal Service is asking Congress for the authority to let it drop Saturday delivery of letters but keep weekend shipment of packages so it can continue to exploit the growth of online commerce.
“As online shopping continues to increase, the Postal Service is very happy to offer shippers like Amazon the option of having packages delivered on Sunday,” Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said in a statement.
The arrangement with Amazon could open the doors to more partnerships with retailers that are eager to use the 500,000 USPS employees and 31,000 post offices across the country to satisfy consumers who want to get what they buy online faster.
The Postal Service said it would increase staffing in the locations where Amazon will offer the service but did not offer specific numbers.
The USPS also declined to comment on how much additional revenue the new initiative is expected to bring. In 2012, the number of packages the agency delivered rose to 3.5 billion, from 3.3 billion in 2011 and 3.1 billion in 2010.
Even so, the Postal Service lost $21 billion over the past two years — and predicts it will continue to operate deep in the red — largely because of the growing expense of delivering letters.
For Amazon, the partnership steps up a fierce battle to make online shopping closer to the instant-buying experience at bricks-and-mortar stores. In the near future, e-commerce is expected to deliver a variety of items — designer jeans or a jug of milk — within hours after an online order is placed.
Wal-Mart, Google, eBay and others are experimenting with same-day delivery. Amazon has a pilot project called Amazon Fresh, which offers grocery delivery in Los Angeles and Seattle, and plans to expand it nationwide.
With an eye on these efforts, the Postal Service began experimenting with same-day delivery in San Francisco.
For years, Amazon has wanted to deliver packages seven days a week but was stymied by the cost of getting packages from its distribution centers to doorsteps. United Parcel Service, FedEx and the USPS charges consumers and businesses more to deliver on Sundays. In the new deal with Amazon, the Postal Service will not charge Amazon or its customers extra for Sunday shipments.
“This is part of a continuing effort to make online shopping a normal, seven-day-a-week, any-time-you-want experience,” said Dave Clark, Amazon’s vice president of worldwide operations and customer service. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Analysts say Amazon has been willing to bear financial losses to expand its business. It sells its Kindle tablets at break-even prices or at a loss in the hopes that consumers will buy more books and other goods through the e-reader. It eats shipping costs for subscribers of its Prime membership service to get them to buy more.
The firm wouldn’t specify when the Sunday deliveries will be available for the Washington area, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Phoenix and other major metropolitan areas next year. Sunday service won’t be available in Hawaii and Alaska, the USPS said.
The Postal Service said it will use its part-time employees, known as city carrier assistants and rural carrier associates, for the Sunday operations. If the volume of packages is projected to be large for a certain Sunday, the agency said it will increase its staffing.
The agency doesn’t need approval by Congress to expand its package delivery schedule to seven days.
“People want instant gratification,” said Sue Brennan, a spokeswoman for the USPS. “And letter-writing, as wonderful as it is, and as good as a letter smells and feels, is a lost art. People aren’t doing it any more.”