Reach out and don't touch - anthrax scare may change the way Americans send things to one another

Wednesday, October 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Greeting cards may lose their envelopes and become glorified - and powder-proof - postcards. Your e-mail file may grow. Hackers once made online billing a hard sell; terrorists are making it popular.

It's too early to say for sure how the anthrax scare will affect how we get stuff from one person or business to another, but delivery professionals predict that alternatives to enveloped mail will benefit.

The post office is clearly worried about anthrax-infected letters that have been discovered in New York and Washington. Also, an anthrax-tainted letter is suspected of fatally infecting a Florida man; and envelopes containing suspicious powders - mostly hoaxes - have been reported by nervous citizens nationwide.

``If people just use prudent judgment, use common sense, there is nothing to fear,'' Postmaster General Jack Potter said Tuesday on NBC's ``Today.'' ``The mail is safe.''

In Washington, all mail delivery has been suspended in the Capitol complex while authorities install new security procedures, and lawmakers have warned constituents not to expect answers to mailed requests anytime soon.

With Christmas around the corner, Hallmark was not counting out reintroducing the staple that got founder Joyce Hall started in 1910 - postcards.

``If one of the terrorists' major aims is to scare a population, they've done that,'' spokeswoman Rachel Bolton said. ``It may be like never before.''

Two-thirds of card sales are for the hand-delivered variety, Bolton said, so enveloped greeting cards will survive - in fact, sales of sympathy and care cards has spiked 10-14 percent since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Still, Hallmark would soon launch a safe mailing campaign.

``Use your own handwriting, and include your name and return address,'' she said.

Post office sales figures are steady for now, probably because the terrorists' apparent focus on media, big business and government has left many Americans unconcerned.

``It doesn't seem like the kind of thing that'll end up in my mailbox,'' said Tiffani Belk, a Washington meeting planner. ``I'm just an everyday person.''

Still, analysts predicted that would change if the letters keep arriving.

David Farber, a former Federal Communications Commission chief technologist, said he predicted a spike in online billing, which is already biting into the U.S. Postal Service's revenues.

``It's likely people are going to bias away from using paper, especially envelopes, at least for a while,'' he said.

Judy Wicks, a vice president at Atlanta-based CheckFree, the online biller for Macy's and AT&T, said the anthrax scare prompted a rush of anxious inquiries in recent days - a marked change from the earlier skepticism about Internet security.

``Before, the questions were about encryption and security,'' she said. ``Now, folks are asking what bills they can pay online.''

A broader shift to e-mail has yet to result, America Online spokesman Nicholas Graham said. Numbers were up, but ``this has always been a very strong time of year for us'' because of back-to-school traffic.

The Arizona Daily Star said Tuesday that from now on, it will only accept e-mailed or faxed letters to the editor, but most other newspapers are not going that far, instead introducing plastic gloves in the mailroom.

If trends do change, the post office would launch appeals to Americans' ``emotional commitment to mail,'' said Anita Bizzotto, the top post office marketing executive.

In any case, she said, 75 percent of the post office's dealings are with large businesses that have shown no interest in going elsewhere.

That could change, Farber predicted.

``E-mail advertising will go way up, because of people's reluctance to open envelopes not addressed to them,'' he said. ``That kills mail advertising.''

Not quite, said John Schulte, the chairman of Minneapolis-based National Mail Order Association. There's no substitute for a pitch in the hand.

``Direct mailers will start using clear, identifiable return addresses ... backing it up with telemarketing campaigns or infomercials saying `Watch for this in the mail.'''

There are already signs that another direct marketing staple - the unsolicited product sample - could be rolled back.

On Tuesday, authorities in Minnesota and Louisiana reported nervous calls prompted by mailed white powder - a 1 1/2 pound package of detergent - sent as a bonus to customers who placed an order with Publishers Clearinghouse.

In Knoxville, Tenn., postal inspector Larry Dodson expressed concern about a nationwide LifeSavers contest asking participants to mail in a piece of candy.

``If it gets crushed, guess what it becomes,'' he said.