Volume 16 • Issue 36 | February 06 - 12, 2004

U.P.S. ship is too tight, says local owner

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Joe Wightman may operate a Mail Boxes Etc. store, but he has a problem with big-box approaches to business.

Wightman has decided to fight what he calls the Wal-Mart-like takeover of his franchise at 295 Greenwich St. in Tribeca. He has joined other Mail Boxes Etc. storeowners nationwide to sue United Parcel Service, which bought Mail Boxes Etc. in April, 2001.

Franchise owners had to decide in early 2003 whether they wanted to switch over to a U.P.S. franchise and change their name to the U.P.S. Store, Wightman said. Wightman felt there wasn’t much of a choice.

U.P.S. sets uniform prices for all shipping services, he explained, so a franchise owner in New York City must charge the same as one in Nebraska even though his costs are much higher.

“They’ve launched a whole other competing franchise system, called the U.P.S. store,” Wightman said.

Wightman stood firm. But his business has suffered since U.P.S. rolled out a new ad campaign in the spring of 2003, Wightman said. The shipping behemoth gave the impression that Mail Boxes Etc. was going out of business, he said. In addition, Wightman said, the U.P.S. locator service will only give a caller his store location after much prompting (he’s called himself). He said there is no U.P.S. store close to him, but he assumes potential customers are leaving Lower Manhattan to send packages.

So Wightman joined forces with nearly 200 Mail Boxes Etc. franchise owners nationwide to sue U.P.S. for allegedly violating franchise laws and using strong-arm tactics and misleading data to pressure franchisees to switch to U.P.S. stores. The suit, which had been dismissed, was amended and is expected to be re-filed on Feb. 7 in the Los Angeles Superior Court, said Howard Spanier, a Mail Box Etc. owner in Malibu, Calif. and the president of the Platinum Shield Association, a nonprofit membership advocacy organization representing Mail Boxes Etc. franchisees.

“From a corporate standpoint, U.P.S. believes the claims are without merit and will continue to defend the case vigorously,” said Jessica Moore, a U.P.S. spokesperson.

Wightman said he has the numbers to prove that something is amiss. Since April, 2003, Wightman’s business has been down by 10 percent. His customer count has been down 16 percent.

Many loyal customers remain, however.

“Without this place, my bills would be late,” said Colleen Holman, a speech therapist at nearby P.S. 89 who dropped by after work to mail some letters. “I love how convenient it is.”

Mail Boxes Etc. sells its customers service and convenience, Wightman said. They trust him with their valuables: Wightman has shipped Eames chairs and $60,000 computer systems.

After Sept. 11, 2001, he took his own truck up to the Farley Post Office on 8th Ave. to pick up his customers’ mail. Then, his and his employees painstakingly moved their mailboxes out of their store, in the frozen zone, to a more accessible location around the corner.

For these efforts, Mail Boxes Etc. awarded Wightman the Humanitarian Award of 2001. The company that gave him that honor has been diminished since: where there were once 3,400 franchisees throughout the country, today there are only 400. The other 3,000 became U.P.S. stores.

Wightman is not Manhattan’s only holdout. In fact, roughly two-thirds of the Mail Boxes Etc. stores in Manhattan chose not to switch to U.P.S., he estimated.

“We know the economics of business,” Wightman said. With uniform prices and set margins, “You just can’t survive in New York City with the rents, the taxes.”

When Wightman’s contract is up for renewal in nine years, he said he will have to convert over to a U.P.S. store if he wants to renew—in this way, he said, U.P.S. is gradually phasing out all Mail Boxes Etc. stores.

Wightman is hoping it won’t come to that, though: “Why would I own a business to not have any control over my business?”



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