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A New Stamp : The Postal Service wants to deliver customer satisfaction. Rancho Santa Margarita's store, a working prototype, has a new look--and some first-class features.


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."

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