Reports that sacks of undelivered second- and third-class mail have been found in carriers' car trunks or under porches added to the post office's woes, and may propel a raft of alternate delivery services springing up to steal its business.
"We've seen delays in delivery, and the delays have been increasing since this past September," said John Popowski, marketing manager at Plow & Hearth, an Orange, Va.-based cataloger. He said delays in catalog delivery mean mailings arrive too close together, reducing response rates and potentially irritating customers.
The company, which has experienced similar problems in the Boston and New York areas, says it's become tougher to properly staff telemarketing departments.
But other major mailers say problems are no worse in Chicago than elsewhere.
Indeed, delivery there is "better than it's ever been," said a spokesman for Advo, the Windsor, Conn.-based mailer of co-op advertising inserts. "Our clients haven't been complaining, even finicky ones."
"We really don't know of new problems," said Rich Simpson, director of public affairs for Domi-nick's Finer Foods, a Chicago supermarket chain that sends weekly mailings through Advo.
But he acknowledged that tracking mail problems isn't easy for local retailers. "We would have no way of knowing. The level at which we have people call and say they have not received our circular has remained steady."
Montgomery Ward & Co. also reported no mix-ups. But others say they have been affected in Chicago and elsewhere.
On the receiving end of the mailbox, DDB Needham Worldwide's Chicago office saw firsthand the impact of mail delivery problems. The agency recently received a memo advising it to expect 2,000 pounds of 2- to 3-week-old mail. The postal service blamed DDB Needham's couriers, who pick up mail from the post office, but the agency said it's never had problems in four years of using the couriers.
For the past year or so, the agency has daily received a boxload of misdirected mail intended for other businesses, including rival agencies Leo Burnett Co. and D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles.
"These are our major competitors in the city and we're sitting here with their mail!" an agency spokeswoman said. "And where is ours?"
The postal service vows to improve delivery. But if not, the long-term implications aren't yet known.
A 22-member postal service task force has been formed, led by two operational specialists from Washington, to deal with Chicago's mail delivery problem.
Postmaster General Marvin Runyon has called the Chicago situation "inexcusable."
"It hasn't been an issue long enough," said Ann Zeller, a VP at the Direct Marketing Association. "Many mailers make plans months in advance. We haven't had a flood of calls from people planning to set up alternate delivery" systems.
But the DMA planned to audit comparative delivery rates by the postal service and alternate carriers in suburban Antioch, Ill.M
Contributing to this story: Jeanne Whalen, Ira Teinowitz and Christy Fisher.