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January 24, 2008

Online shopping keeps mailrooms hopping

Santa’s job may be done for the season, but in mailrooms across Pitt’s campuses, staffers are in the midst of their busiest time of year.

With the exception of valentines and birthday cards, email has replaced most letter mail for students, but online shopping has more than filled the void.

Nationwide, online purchasing accounted for 3.4 percent of total sales with e-commerce totaling $34.7 billion in the third quarter of 2007. E-commerce increased 19.3 percent from the third quarter of 2006, according to seasonally adjusted U.S. Department of Commerce statistics.

And, if mailroom staffers’ observations are any indication, Pitt students are doing their part. The hundreds of packages that arrive on Pitt’s campuses each day offer tangible evidence that students are doing more than researching, gaming, social networking or downloading music online.

This time of year, Pitt’s holiday break and the subsequent start of spring term contribute to the mountains of mail and especially high numbers of packages as online orders of books, dorm room furnishings and packages from home follow students to their dorm rooms.

While the Pittsburgh campus mailrooms have been feeling the impact of online shopping for some time, the trend more recently has been on the increase at Pitt’s regional campuses, mailroom staffers observe.

“By the end of Christmas break I run out of room,” said mailroom operator Julie Bower of Pitt-Greensburg. Books start arriving, joining late-arriving packages that didn’t get to students before they went on break, along with admissions mail and departmental mail that piles up while the University is closed.

Bower said she comes in one day during the break to sort out the mail and clear the way. “I leave myself a path to get from the front of the room to the back,” she said.

Books bought online are a huge contributor to the piles of packages mailroom staffers are processing. Pitt-Johnstown mailroom supervisor Frank Dupnock noted that one of his work-study students recently got an $85 textbook online for $7.50, so he can understand the appeal of online shopping.

Bower said she’s seen increasing numbers of books arriving, with at least 100 orders showing up over just two days earlier this month, up from just a handful a few years ago. “Online book buying is just incredible,” Bower said. But there can be a downside to the bargain book shopping if the order is late. Bower sees a few forlorn students at the start of each term, anxiously dropping by the mailroom window every day in search of their books.

Dupnock, who has been employed at Pitt for more than 30 years, said, “The volume at the beginning of the term is amazing,” estimating that over the past five years, the volume of mail he’s seen has doubled. While fewer letters are coming through the mailroom, package volume has more than made up for the decrease, he said.

UPJ has mailboxes for some 3,000 resident and commuter students, Dupnock said, noting that’s comparable in size to many post offices. In addition, the UPJ mailroom delivers twice a day to 41 departments on campus. Typically, two hampers full of mail arrive daily on campus, but for the first few days at the start of the term, that increases to four or five, Dupnock said. In addition to books, other purchases and items forgotten by students and shipped from home make up a good portion of the extra volume, he said.

At Pitt-Bradford, 15-year mailroom veteran Colleen Gleason noted, “They have book rush in the bookstore; I have book rush in the mail center these days.” One day last week, she received 84 packages just from the U.S. Postal Service, not counting those shipped by other carriers. Of them, about 75 contained books, she estimated. Not only is a significant portion of the campus’s 660 students buying books online, they’re also selling them online as well, adding to the numbers of outgoing parcels Gleason processes.

Gus Tytke, assistant director of mailing services on the Pittsburgh campus, said six student mail centers in Pittsburgh process about 800,000 pieces of mail each year, including 50,000 packages, for the campus’s approximately 5,950 resident students.

He noted that the mail is concentrated during the nine months of the fall and spring terms, with only a fraction of the mail arriving during the summer, when few students are living on campus.

Over the last five years, mail volumes on the Pittsburgh campus have fluctuated by no more than 1 percent a year, Tytke said. “The volume of letters has remained approximately the same as prior years; however, we have seen a slight increase in the number of packages we are processing. This can be attributed to both an increase in resident students and Internet sales,” he said.

Kim Renziehausen agreed that in her six years in the Litchfield Towers mailroom, she’s seen no significant increase. But, she said, “ is huge. We probably get 100 packages a day just from”

And it’s not just books arriving. “They order everything,” she said of students. “We got a mandolin in yesterday.”

Lisa Maybray of Pitt-Titusville notes that students often have large items shipped directly to campus rather than bring them to campus in the family van. She recently saw several dorm refrigerators arrive for students.

“A kid had a big-screen TV come in here,” UPB’s Gleason said, adding that she asked him to pick up the oversized item immediately so she could regain a bit of elbow room.

Last year, one UPG student received a car bumper and an exhaust pipe that arrived in a nine-foot-long box. “I had to call him because I just don’t have room here for a nine-foot box,” Bower said.

Sometimes the big items just aren’t keepers. At UPJ last semester, some residents received an entire gym system they hoped to set up in their dorm room — six or eight UPS boxfuls, Dupnock said. UPJ’s Housing office balked at the amount of equipment the students wanted to cram into their room, so the equipment had to be returned. Although the students were displeased, “We sent it right back,” Dupnock said.

At UPB, general online shopping results in lots of deliveries on campus. Thanks to the campus’s rural location, fashion-conscious shoppers with a taste for styles not found at the local Wal-Mart must either trek to Erie or Buffalo, or buy online. Gleason sees the evidence in the numbers of packages from retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle and other student favorites.

eBay also contributes to mailroom volumes — in both incoming and outgoing parcels.

Dupnock and Bower both said they have a handful of avid eBayers among the student body who have become regular shippers and receivers.

Care packages add to the volume of student mail, although nowadays Bower is seeing more coming directly from The Popcorn Factory and similar treat purveyors.

At the other end of the spectrum is some truly unusual mail. A banana that was mailed to the dorms wasn’t quite up to the trip. “When the Post Office brought it here, it was rotting and they had to put it in a bag,” Renziehausen said.

She also recalls receiving a coconut addressed to one Pitt resident, and a single shoe with postage affixed to it. No packaging, “just a shoe,” she said.

“They send everything they want.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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