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Amazon's drones dazzle postal CEO

But says such technologies decades away

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TORONTO -- Canada Post CEO Deepak Chopra is eager to discuss the bombshell that has people talking about the future of Amazon's package service -- drone delivery.

The chief executive is fascinated by the U.S. online retailer's airborne pilot project that, earlier this month, grabbed headlines around the world.

"I don't think anybody was really anticipating a story like that," he said, talking about the new Amazon technology that is hardly off the ground.

"While these technologies are interesting, they'll take decades to be perfected," Chopra said in an interview Thursday at the Canada Post offices in downtown Toronto.

Canada Post is a long way from deliveries of small packages by drones. But the service that began in 1867 as Royal Mail Canada took an unprecedented step last week when it announced a five-year reworking of its business that will eliminate thousands of jobs, raise stamp prices and scrap home delivery.

The revelations caught many Canadians off guard and blindsided community groups who said they didn't realize the elimination of door-to-door service was being seriously considered.

Chopra said it was "very clearly" one of the options discussed in dozens of community meetings held the past year.

"We are facing some very difficult choices -- this is not a business that has the luxury of doing nothing," he said.

Canada Post is in a sticky situation, trying to evolve with technological changes while also rescuing its struggling operations and dealing with its $6.5-billion pension shortfall.

Some of the changes were revealed last week when Canada Post said it would phase out door-to-door delivery and raise stamp prices by more than 35 per cent to 85 cents when purchased in a booklet. Single stamps will cost $1 each starting in March.

Many of the specifics haven't been explained -- the various models of community mailboxes that will replace postal carriers are still prototypes, and it's uncertain how long it will take to fully eliminate foot delivery.

"We are in the very early stages," Chopra said. "I think what we're starting off (with) right now is a lot of homework and a lot of thinking based on where we find ourselves financially."

While Canada Post has stressed two-thirds of Canadian households now use community mailboxes, that leaves about 5.1 million people with door delivery.

The St. Elizabeth's Village retirement community in Hamilton, Ont., is one of the areas that relies primarily on postal carriers. While newer homes, where the younger residents live, have community mailboxes, most others have a mailbox outside their front door.

Eldon Comeau, 74, said the elimination of door-to-door delivery has caused many older residents to wonder if they'll need to rely on friends or caregivers to retrieve mail from a communal mailbox down the road.

"A lot of these people have a hard time getting around," he said.

"We've got people in their 80s and 90s with walkers... The people who have got the (community) box always complain because we get it at the door."

Much of Canada Post's new strategy was based on research it conducted earlier this year when it asked Canadians to suggest how the business could evolve to serve them best.

Nearly 4,000 responses were collected from users through an online form and traditional mail, while invitation-only community events were held with Canadians handpicked by Canada Post in a way it said would best represent the diversity of the communities.

"The smallest number of comments came through actual mail... which is the irony," Chopra said.

In a report that included some of the responses, people said they would be satisfied with letter delivery every other day, as long as it was reliable. The research also found Canadians said they would accept higher stamp prices "within reason," though a specific rate increase was not presented.

One retiree who used a community mailbox told Canada Post, "I use it as an excuse to get out of the house -- it keeps me active."

However, Chopra was chided when he paraphrased the remark before a House of Commons committee on Wednesday while addressing the future of the Crown corporation's business.

The opposition parties have also questioned how much effort was put into consulting with Canadians.

Chopra said he knows there will be seniors who require a "thoughtful and careful transition" through the changes, but he wasn't able to expand on what that means for the service.

He said the new Canada Post will need to keep pace with an evolving marketplace, where it will focus more on e-commerce partnerships, like a same-day delivery service for online shoppers. A pilot project is currently underway in the Toronto area.

"I think the world will continue to change dramatically," he said. "As it changes, we will have to change again."

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 24, 2013 B11

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