Zumbox Presents a New Alternative to Postal Mail

The service will allow businesses to go paperless and still reach customers based on location.

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When I received a press release touting "the first all-digital Web-based alternative to the U.S. Postal Service," my first thought was, "Like... e-mail?" E-mail has not, of course, replaced our postal mail, but it sure would be nice if it could - paper mail is wasteful when you consider the tons of resources used, and the carbon emitted in its delivery. The USPS has always been threatened by electronic mail ever since it was created, especially as more people who care about saving time, money and the environment go online to pay their bills and correspond each day.

E-mail addresses lack geographic grounding, though, so your congressman or neighborhood association wouldn't be able to send you an online notice unless they already knew your e-mail address. E-mail addresses can come from any number of providers, and local businesses who want to advertise to a small audience would have no way of directly reaching potential customers online.

Zumbox wants to change that. The start-up, which launched this week, has created an electronic mailbox for every address in the country, and it's free for all users. Companies can sign up to send mail via Zumbox so you can check your mail from anywhere. Companies can send catalogues, bills and notifications, all paperless, and customers can decide whether or not they want to opt-out of the paper versions of the same documents. It's free for businesses, nonprofits, government entities and individuals to send mail, while marketers are charged five cents per message. Video can be embedded, and catalogues are PDFed.

"What we're trying to do here is acknowledge the desire of people to take back control of their mailboxes," said President Glen Ward. "We all receive mail and much of it is pertinent, but much of it is not relevant to us. There's been no change in the postal service for 100 years and we feel there's a disconnect between the physical postal system and the digital world."

I talked to Ward, formerly the CEO of Virgin Entertainment Group, about Zumbox earlier today, because I was a little bit skeptical - I already pay my bills online, and like pretty much everyone else in the world, I don't like receiving junk mail. How would Zumbox be any different than setting up my bills and student loan notices to come directly to my inbox? How would getting credit card pre-approval notices electronically be any less annoying than getting them tangibly, other than not wasting paper? Paying your bills online, it turns out, is not as common as I'd thought.

"Some of the biggest institutions, like Bank of America, have found that it's in the low single figures - three, four or five percent - that have opted in [for online bill-paying]," said Ward. People are "reluctant to go through the hurdles of creating different log-ins on different sites. More tech-savvy people can aggregate them, but the reality is, most people don't go that route, so we want to lower the hurdle." Zumbox would allow people to consolidate their bills and securely pay them directly from their mailbox, rather than remembering passwords for different sites.

A few other perks: Unlike a real mailbox, Zumbox allows you to block those who are sending you unwanted mail. It's easy and fast to transfer addresses, so you don't have to worry about misdirected mail when you move. The site has an API platform, so developers can innovate. Your mailbox can be synced with a Google widget or e-mail address, so you'll be instantly alerted to mail in your Zumbox. And of course, it will save both you and the companies that have signed up to use the service - a list of department stores, banks and other businesses that Ward says is growing each day - a lot of money and paper. Zumbox does take away the anonymity of mail, though - your name is attached to any correspondence you send - so any secret admirers looking to anonymously mail Valentines to a sweetheart are better off sticking with the USPS.

It's a natural fit for environmental groups, especially.

"They find it difficult to send physical mailings without being accused of being hypocritical themselves, so it's a perfect solution for them to stand by their principles," said Ward, who calls the business "Environment 2.0 - it's pro-business, pro-consumer." He acknowledges that the obvious environmental advantages of the service may not be at the top of everyone's priority lists. "The environmental message is creeping up the agenda, but let's be quite honest - at top of agenda is economy, and cost-savings."

Some other blogs have claimed that Zumbox will kill off paper mail, but that's not the truth, and not even one of their goals. Ward recognizes that there's no digital equivalent to a hand-written love letter or a beautifully-embossed wedding invitation, and on those fronts, Zumbox cannot compete.

"We're trying to present an alternative, and give people a choice. It's a tremendous business, the physical mail system," said Ward. "There are some things that can never be replaced. It's a joy and a delight to receive a hand-written letter or a greeting card."