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Netflix Postal Woes? No Worries

netflix mailBlockbuster hasn’t been able to derail Netflix but could the U.S. Post Office? That was a question that popped up earlier today after results of a November audit by the Postal Inspector General began to circulate in the wider press, and more narrowly from a blog posting on Wired that sounded an alarm but left out important details.  The details tell a different story. Fear not.

The audit report in question was from early November (See PDF link Below).  It was focused on First Class Permit Reply Mail, the category of mail used by popular movie rental services as well as Game Fly and some audiobook services.   

The report found some of the envelopes used in these services were problematic and costly.  It noted: “employees manually process 70 percent of  the approved First-Class two-way DVD return mailpieces from one DVD rental company because these pieces sustain damage, jam equipment and cause missorts.” 

The cost of this manual sorting was estimated to be $41.9m for the past two years, and will be about $61m over the next two.

Netflix wasn’t specifically named but the inference was there to suggest their envelopes were the primary culprit (although other DVD mailers were also suspect in some parts of the report).  

The Wired article reported the “Netflix envelopes have become such a headache, the OIG recommends the USPS add a surcharge of 17c on DVD return mailers.”   Popular blog ReadWriteWeb, of which I am generally a fan, also reported similar.  Both were misleading and arguably, inaccurate.

The OIG’s audit report did include the possibility of a surcharge, but that prospect followed two other recommendations that were not noted in those articles.  The first was that postal management identify the specific characteristics making these envelopes “non-machineable.”  The second was that they “notify affected mailers” and have Postal Engineering test any new style envelopes.  The presumption in the actual report is that only envelopes still requiring manual sorting after the first two steps had been followed would be charged for manual labor services. 

There’s a big gap between the actual report and the blog postings.  Figuring out the problem, having a chance to fix it and being fined only if you don’t is not the same as inferring the fine could be imminent right now.

Also, as significant, the audit report was a recommendation to Postal Management not a statement of policy.  In fact, the report even noted Postal “Management was not responsive to the findings and recommendations.”   

Both the Wired and Read Write Web reports cite Citi analysts on the impact of the 17c surcharge.  The analysts use it as grounds to support a sell rating on the Netflix stock and a buy rating on Blockbuster (according to the two articles).

In their math, the analysts point out that 17c an envelope could heavily impact operating income and force Netflix to either pass along the fees to customers (price hike) or cause a significant reduction in operating income per subscriber.  The estimate was a greater than 60% degradation. On this subject, they issued a note to their clients writing, as quoted in both articles, a price hike “would exacerbate the risks we see in Netflix’s business model.”

With around 1.6m DVDs shipped per day, it’s true a surcharge would be incredibly costly.  If hit with these fees, it could be catastrophic for the stock.  Then again, if every content licensor in agreement with Apple pulled out of iTunes tomorrow, Apple’s stock would suffer badly too.  That doesn’t mean either sequence of events is in any way likely.

The problem with the analysis and with both postings is the same thing – there is no surcharge currently planned.  Though one could happen, nothing indicates it’s in the works or on its way. The post office has noted a potential problem with Netflix envelopes, a floppy leading edge, they’ve also indicated they’d like to see it corrected but there is no policy or plan in place to  fix it or seek “manual processing” surcharges.   

Netflix has changed their envelopes dozens of times since first launching.  The current envelope has been in use for two years and now it may get a review and upgrade.    If it happens, that could come with some costs but so high to have a measurable impact on performance? Not likely.

Like Netflix or hate them for the nature of their business.  Be bearish, bullish or neutral.  Whatever the vantage point,  it doesn’t seem likely surcharges are going to be a problem.

As for Blockbuster and calling them a buy? That’s a whole different thermos of Kool Aid.    They lost $35m last quarter.  They lost plenty over the past years.  Maybe they’re turning it around, but I’m not ready to drink that mix.  If anything, Blockbuster recent actions have me running the other way.


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