January 04, 2023
Since the start of the pandemic, Philadelphians have been ordering more packages than ever. But many of those deliveries aren't reaching their doors.
Complaints of so-called porch pirates swiping mail from stoops and building lobbies are rampant on neighborhood apps like NextDoor, where users describe stolen electronics, shoes, pet supplies and Christmas presents. "Has anyone noticed an uptick in stolen packages? I haven't ever had this problem and all of a sudden every package I've ordered gets stolen within minutes," one post from a Francisville resident reads.
It's not all social media hearsay. A congressional inquiry into the U.S. Postal Service's operations in Pennsylvania this fall — yeah, it's that bad — found that robberies of mail carriers more than tripled between 2018 and 2021, and official mail theft complaints in the Philly area rose by roughly 10% between the fiscal years 2020 and 2022. The USPS Office of the Inspector General is currently auditing the Philadelphia Processing and Distribution Center, as well as three city offices, for delivery and property conditions.
In the face of so many missing packages and sunken costs, some Philadelphians are taking mail security into their own hands with private mailboxes.
Companies offering mailbox rental services have operated in the city for decades, but now demand is on a whole new level.
"2022 was the best year of my career," Napoleon Suarez, owner of Bella Vista-based Fishbox, said. "We've just had a ton of sign-ups."
Long-time businesses are scaling up to meet demand. After running the Liberties Parcel on Second and Brown streets for 14 years, Stuart Kaplan and his partner Dan Streckewald expanded to a second location down the block this past August. But unlike the Liberties Parcel, which offers shipping, packing and copying services along with private mailboxes, the new spot — the Package Safe Club — is focused exclusively on mailbox rentals.
"Over the last several years, (it's) been impossible," Kaplan said. "We've been completely sold out, which is why we expanded to this new location."
The market is also primed for new players, like Fishtown's Stash Spot. Owner Debbie Anday opened the shop in December 2021 after renting one of Suarez's mailboxes. Packages delivered while she was home, she said, were disappearing before she even knew they had arrived. Now she helps customers with the same issue, and this past holiday season, she said, business was nearly double what she expected.
Private mailboxes are somewhat similar to P.O. boxes, the locked compartments that USPS rents at its post offices. For a monthly fee, private mailbox customers get places other than their homes where their mail can be sent, but different tiers of membership come with additional perks, like free home delivery or more users on the account. Some models require a contract, while others can be canceled at any time.
Usually, though, the process starts with filling out USPS Form 1583, which authorizes the delivery of mail through a third party. You'll need to show two forms of ID to complete it in order to prove your identity and verify your address.
Customers receive unique mailbox numbers, and can start sending mail to the business's address. They'll get email notifications when items arrive, and usually have up to 30 days to pick them up.
Fishbox, Stash Spot and the Package Safe Club all promise no size restrictions on their sites. That includes bulky, heavy items like weights and Pelotons, which Suarez frequently saw pass through his shop in 2022.
Owners at all the three shops say customers often come to them complaining of porch pirates, who steal even highly personal items like wedding albums. But they also gripe about delivery drivers who don't knock when they're home or shipping couriers with restrictive pick-up windows. "We're open a bit later than the post office," Anday said. "(And the USPS) can't necessarily accept things from DHL, UPS or Amazon. Then also, you're paying more for box size, (but) we don't have a cap on size as long as it fits through our door."
Private mailboxes are obviously appealing to new business owners establishing their LLCs and frequent travelers, but all kinds of people sign up for them. The Package Safe Club has attracted retirees who are home most of the day, but don't want to stress about missing the doorbell. Fishbox, meanwhile, has seen a number of engaged or expecting couples with registries sign up, as well as wine snobs.
"People have been going crazy ordering wine online," Suarez laughed. "We have customers that live in Jersey, and they let me know that they couldn't get wine delivered in Jersey, (so) they get it delivered to Philly."
As a new year kicks off, private mailbox operators aren't expecting business to slow down. Anday has already added new services like digital mailboxes — customers receive pictures of their mail and can get it forwarded, scanned or shredded — since she launched, while emerging mail moguls like Kaplan are hoping to open even more shops across the city.
"I think online ordering is only going to get bigger," Kaplan said. "And with subscription programs, people are going to sign up for things and then you don't necessarily know when they're coming.
"So all these fulfillment things are just going to continue bringing more packages to people's doorsteps, or to a location like me."
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