When the Rancho Santa Margarita post office first opened, a woman walked in, stopped abruptly, glanced around and walked out.
"She thought she was in the wrong place," said the manager, Bob Phraner. "This doesn't look like your usual post office."
Indeed, it doesn't. Sitting between a real estate office and a delicatessen in one of Orange County's newer shopping centers, it looks like a post office as you approach. But once inside, you might mistake it for a greeting card store.
To the right is "The Postal Store," carpeted area with shelves and wall racks displaying ordinary and special-issue stamps, packaging materials and books about stamp collecting, most in a colorful cellophane "Self-Service Pack." A clerk patrols, ready to answer questions and ring up sales at the cash register.
On the left is the "QuikPost" section with post office boxes, mail slots, postage vending machines and a computerized scale that dispenses a note telling how much postage you need. Take the note to the Postal Store, and the clerk will print out the exact postage.
For those who still need help, down the middle of the room, marked by colorful ceiling soffits, floor tile and an unusually long, glitzy writing counter, is the path to the "full service counter" with the usual postal clerks. Your bank ATM card is welcome here and soon also your Visa or MasterCard. If a line forms, the "lobby director" comes out to assist people waiting in line.
The Rancho Santa Margarita post office is what the U.S. Postal Service calls its "perfect postal store," the laboratory prototype of what it believes to be the post office of the future. The result of market research and experimentation that began in 1987, its 18-month test has been an unqualified success, postal authorities said.
"We collect more revenue dollars with fewer people," Phraner said. "We sell more philatelic and retail items than most, because they're out on display. When we have the commemorative stamps, customers can see them right when they come in."
Postal authorities said an audit of postal stores show they usually make back the cost of their construction during the first year.
The Postal Service plans to install a clone or adaptation of the Rancho Santa Margarita post office in many of the nation's urban and suburban post offices.
California is particularly active, officials said. Of the 79 postal stores in the nation, most of earlier designs, nine are in California. In Orange County, a second, smaller store is in the lobby of Irvine's Harvest Station post office.
Postal stores are being designed for, or are under construction in, Anaheim, Bell, Encino, Los Alamitos, Thousand Oaks and Westchester in Southern California, and in Alamo, Oakland and Santa Cruz in Northern California.
All this is aimed at making the traditionally gray, rigid Postal Service "user friendly," thereby retrieving customers who have gone over to more expensive but more convenient private shippers and neighborhood mailbox services.
"Good retailers have been doing this for years," said Fred Hintenach, the Postal Service's chief of retail support. "Create a pleasant retail environment in a convenient location, create volume and flow, then let the customers touch and feel the merchandise. We're no different than other business. We want as much of it as we can get."
The new emphasis on retailing started with selling postage at supermarkets, by mail and from modern vending machines that could make change for bills. Now it has spread to accepting postage orders via telephone, fax and personal computers.
In California and Washington, some Wells Fargo Bank ATMs and all Seafirst National Bank and Santa Barbara Bank & Trust ATMs now dispense sheets of stamps and charge them to customers' accounts. Accomplishing that nationwide would double the Postal Service's vending capacity.
In New York and Florida, post offices are selling travelers checks and gift checks from American Express.
"If we both make money doing it, we'll keep doing it," said Hugh McGonigle, manager of alternative retail services at postal headquarters in Washington, D.C.
"There may be other products. We're not interested in selling T-shirts. But if there are aspects of our service that could be made better by offering complementary services, we'll explore it."
In Fresno, Carson City and Lincoln Park near Detroit, full-service post offices are inside Super Kmart stores. Called "Post Office Express," they are open whenever the store is open, seven days a week. More will open soon in Nashville supermarkets.
"We're reversing things and working from the customers back instead of the other way around," McGonigle said. "The idea (is) post offices in non-traditional places--convention centers, airports, vehicles that show up places during lunch hours. The whole notion of what a post office is could change. Wherever the customers are, we want to be there."
In the Santa Ana and Monterey Park post offices, a third-generation weighing and rating unit is being tested in hopes it will recoup some of the parcel business lost to United Parcel Service and Federal Express.
The machine, accessible at all hours, weighs a letter or parcel up to 70 pounds, asks whether it's first-class, third-class or Express Mail, then dispenses change and a stamp imprinted with exact postage up to $99.99.
They are real, lick-and-stick stamps and are at present so novel they've generated some windfall revenue. Stamp dealers from as far away as Seattle have appeared and spent thousands at the machines.
"We've got the only ones on the West Coast, so we're a collector's heaven," said Andy Saldana, supervisor of customer service in Santa Ana. "They come in with a stack of bills and a chair and stay there all weekend."
The machine can also file change-of-address notices and may provide other services in coming years, such as accepting ATM cards and dispensing money orders.
What the Postal Service is finally realizing, Hintenach said, is that "people like self-service." Getting stuck behind a customer who buys a money order, registers a letter, then asks, "What kind of pretty stamps do you have?" has made the typical patron dread trips to the post office.
"You can't get me to walk into a service station office anymore. I pay at the pump every time," said Hintenach. Once people get used to a more convenient self-service post office, "there's the ability to gain business they now do with other companies at higher prices."
The move toward more sophisticated retailing started in the late 1980s, when surveys of postal customers showed alarming dissatisfaction. Many complained about the institutional atmosphere in post office lobbies, said Nancy Wood, national manager for the postal retail store project. "We got complaint and complaint: Don't makes us stand in line. Don't make us ask for everything."
The Postal Service hired retail consultants, and Wood surveyed some of the most successful retailers.
"I worked with Disney and WalMart and Blockbuster and McDonald's on how they do things," Wood said. "I'm one of those old-operation types. This was a new world for me."
Tryouts of initial designs in two Washington, D.C., post offices showed there were too few signs and too little lighting, said Wood. The yellow-and-black color scheme was judged "too Kodak" and was changed to raspberry and cream. Displayed merchandise was moved forward and to one side to take advantage of the typical customer's tendency to turn right upon entering. Floor and ceiling designs were changed to visually nudge customers in the desired directions.
Designs were revised, tested and revised again, Wood said. Although 79 postal stores of one design or another have been built, postal planners felt they reached perfection with the Rancho Santa Margarita design, Wood said.
"It's been terrific," said customer Beth Barker of Laguna Niguel, who was gluing stamps to a parcel. "This is the most efficient post office I've been in. It's pleasant, too. I feel I could go up and talk to people here.
"The Christmas season was the real test, and even at lunchtime, it was just great. I come here instead of some other post office every time I can."
Employees like the new design, too, but there are some negatives, Phraner said. Some of the new-style post offices have suffered vandalism, and so post office boxes sometimes are not accessible when the office is closed.
"That has kept down my box revenue," Phraner said.
And despite the surveillance cameras and the anti-shoplifting detectors at the door, there is "inventory shrinkage," Phraner said. That is something traditional post offices almost never experienced, "but still it's far less than in the normal retail environment."
Now the Postal Service is planning to adapt the postal store pattern in some way to virtually each of the 35,000 post offices in the nation.
"We hope by the year 2000 that all of our major-metropolitan area post offices will have this look," said Wood. "In the meantime, any new facilities or facilities up for remodeling will have this design." The smallest post offices will just get a "paint and cleanup."
Just how to do this is being studied by the Postal Service's marketing consultants, King-Casey Inc. of New Canaan, Conn. It is a complicated problem, said consultant Anna Kahn.
"The postal store is great, but you can't tell what's inside from seeing what's outside," Kahn said. "We have to bring that same kind of life to the outside. Don't ask me how we're going to do that, because I don't know. Part of the whole thing will be to improve the retail appearance of the outside."
On the other hand, some post offices, especially in older cities, are architectural landmarks.
"You have to be real careful with these edifices," Kahn said. "How do you improve them without schlocking them up? You have to be careful with the crown jewels."
But the real key to success, she said, is getting postal customers accustomed to self-service. "McDonald's gets us all to bus our trash. We pump our own gas, and people don't consider it an inconvenience. It's a big education job."
Like the education of Tim Stickler of Newport Beach, who warily approached the computerized weigh-and-postage machine in Santa Ana's Sunflower Avenue post office. Stickler uses a personal computer constantly in his job, but in less than a minute on the machine he was lost and heading for the take-a-number dispenser.
Urged to try again, he succeeded.
"It helps if you read the instructions," he said, grinning. "I'm sure I'll be using it again."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The 'Perfect' Post Office
The Postal Service considers the Rancho Santa Margarita Post Office its ultimate design for the future. The layout includes: * Postal store: Stamps, packaging and stamp-collecting books are displayed on self-serve racks and charged on a separate cash register. * QuikPost: Area with a computerized postage scale, stamp-vending machines and mail slots. * Full-service counter: For more involved transactions such as money orders and certified mail; checks accepted and ATM cards accepted, and credits cards soon will be. * Postal slide: Long counter where customers can rest parcels or write as they wait in line. * Decor: New colors and interior design emphasize different service areas.