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Package wars: Postal Service offers next-day Sunday delivery

WASHINGTON — As consumers demand ever-quicker and convenient package delivery, the U.S. Postal Service wants to boost its business this holiday season by offering what few e-commerce retailers can provide: cheap next-day service with packages delivered Sundays to your home.

Retail giant Walmart says it is considering the Sunday option, which could reshape weekend shopping trips to the mall.

The program, available in 20 major U.S. cities, allows consumers to place online orders with participating retailers before a cutoff time Saturday, the Postal Service said. Postal carriers pick up merchandise from local stores for delivery the following day, similar to the Sunday package deliveries it now handles almost exclusively for online leader Amazon in much of the U.S.

The Postal Service hasn't disclosed which stores may sign onto the new pilot program, launched in advance of retailers' most competitive time of the year.

"It's one of the ideas Walmart is looking at," company spokesman Ravi Jariwala told The Associated Press, citing the big-box chain's recent focus on getting goods to shoppers' front doors quickly. In recent months, Walmart has announced added shipping options to better compete with Amazon, from acquiring a same-day delivery service in New York to testing drop-offs of packages by Uber drivers and Walmart employees.

Best Buy and Target, which recently added speedier holiday shipping options, declined to comment on the program.

The next-day weekend service is part of the Postal Service's aggressive push into the parcel business at a time when its more lucrative first-class mail is declining in the digital age. With Amazon continuing to raise the bar of "free shipping" conveniences, from one- or two-day package arrivals to keyless in-home delivery via couriers, the financially beleaguered post office is billing itself as the trusted, low-cost carrier already serving every U.S. household.

The expanded Sunday delivery is aimed at consumers like Susan Dennis, 68, of Seattle. Weary of weekend trips to the mall where she often ends up stuck in traffic or waiting too long in line, the retiree says she buys online whenever possible and isn't wedded to just Amazon, if the product quality is good and the delivery "fast and inexpensive."

"More Sunday deliveries would be one of the sweetest deals ever — give me the URL and I will buy whatever," Dennis said.

Bolstered by e-commerce growth and its Sunday operations, the Postal Service will reach new highs this year in holiday package delivery, with nearly 850 million U.S. parcels delivered from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve, according to figures compiled by industry tracker ShipMatrix Inc. for the AP. That 13 percent increase from 2016 would exceed the single-digit percentage growth for UPS and FedEx, putting the post office on track to capture 45.6 percent market share in peak holiday deliveries, ShipMatrix said.

The post office's growth is due in large part to its established network in the "last mile," the final and usually most expensive stretch of a package's journey to a customer's door. UPS and FedEx already subcontract a chunk of their last-mile deliveries to the post office. Due to slower growth this holiday season, the two private carriers are expected to drop in market share, to 31.3 percent and 17.8 percent, respectively, according to the ShipMatrix analysis.

UPS, in a dig at the post office's financial woes, says it is focused on profitable growth and less concerned about expanding market share, "especially if it were to involve loss-making service expansions." FedEx said it had no comment on market share and would boost operations during the holiday season to meet customer needs.

Courier services, such as Uber and Deliv, are expected to rise, delivering about 5.2 percent of the peak holiday packages.

"Having a Postal Service driver on every street every day making deliveries, you can't really beat that," said Satish Jindel, founder and president of ShipMatrix.

The holiday plans include added postal delivery on Sundays beginning Nov. 26 and delivery on Christmas Day in some cities, the postal service said. It also offers a new online tool that allows consumers to reschedule package deliveries to ensure someone is home to receive them.

The Postal Service also bucked the shipping industry by keeping package rates largely unchanged for the holidays. UPS for the first time is imposing holiday surcharges on ground shipments to homes during peak periods, such as the weeks leading into Black Friday and Christmas, while FedEx is raising rates for certain oversized packages.

"The Postal Service is well-prepared to meet our customers' needs during the holiday season, especially as demand for package deliveries continues to grow," said Megan Brennan, postmaster general.

Analysts have cheered the Postal Service's promise in the digital age, noting that there now is little talk of ending Saturday mail delivery given rising package demands. "The future of USPS probably hasn't been better in a long time," said David G. Ross, a shipping analyst at Stifel Financial Corp.

Technology seeks to preserve fading braille literacy

BOSTON — For nearly a century, the National Braille Press has churned out millions of pages of Braille books and magazines a year, providing a window on the world for generations of blind people.

But as it turns 90 this year, the Boston-based printing press and other advocates of the tactile writing system are wrestling with how to address record low Braille literacy.

Roughly 13 percent of U.S. blind students were considered Braille readers in a 2016 survey by the American Printing House for the Blind, another major Braille publisher, located in Louisville, Kentucky. That number has steadily dropped from around 30 percent in 1974, the first year the organization started asking the question.

Brian Mac Donald, president of the National Braille Press, says the modern blind community needs easier and more affordable ways to access the writing system developed in the 1800s by French teacher Louis Braille.

For the National Braille Press and its 1960-era Heidelberg presses, that has meant developing and launching its own electronic Braille reader last year — the B2G .

"Think Kindle for the blind," Mac Donald said as he showed off the portable machine — which has an eight-button keyboard for typing in Braille as well as a refreshable, tactile display for reading along in Braille — during a recent tour of the press' headquarters near Northeastern University.

The venerable press, which started as a Boston newspaper for the blind in 1927, has also looked beyond printing Braille versions of popular books and magazine titles.

Educational materials like school textbooks and standardized tests, as well as business-related publications like restaurant menus, instruction manuals and business cards, comprise an increasingly larger share of revenues, Mac Donald said.

"Braille isn't dead by any means," he said. "But it needs technology to adapt and evolve."

Waning interest in Braille has been a challenge since the 1970s, when school districts started de-emphasizing it in favor of audio learning and other teaching methods, said Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore.

New technology has allowed people with visual impairments to live more independently than ever, but they're also playing a role in eroding Braille's prominence, said Cory Kadlik, a 26-year-old Massachusetts native who lost his sight as an infant.

Kadlik said he is "not the strongest Braille reader," in large part because of what technology allows him to accomplish.

Computer software reads aloud emails and other digital documents for him, and his smartphone helps him complete everyday tasks like sorting the mail.

"I have an application that can read the print on the envelope to me," said Kadlik, a technology specialist at the Braille & Talking Book Library in Watertown, part of the Perkins School for the Blind, the nation's oldest such school, where Helen Keller was educated. "That's crazy. That's unheard of."

But while technology has opened up a new world not dependent on Braille, it also presents its best chance at survival, said Kim Charlson, the library's director.

Electronic Braille computers allow users to digitally store hundreds of Braille materials that would otherwise be large and unwieldy in print, not to mention access the internet and complete other computer-based tasks in Braille.

Such machines have been around for years, but their average cost of $4,000 to $5,000 has so far kept them out of reach for most, says Charlson.

That is starting to change. The Perkins Library, for example, will soon start loaning out 200 devices that normally retail for about $475, and the National Braille Press' Braille computer costs $2,495.

"Technology is the key to making Braille more relevant by getting it into the hands of more people," said Charlson, who began losing her vision as a child and is now totally blind.

Another key is overcoming perceptions that Braille is hard to learn and inefficient to use, said Joseph Quintanilla, the vice president of development at the National Braille Press.

Quintanilla, who has been legally blind since age five, said he regrets shunning Braille growing up. He started to appreciate its role in imparting crucial grammar and communication skills only when he entered the working world and had to play catch up.

"I don't think we would ask sighted people to go through life without reading," Quintanilla said. "So we shouldn't do that for blind people."