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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mail Companies Fight for Turf, Pound by Pound

They can send a man to the moon. But getting a letter to London is another story. Not even the private mail companies that have sprung up to replace the sprawling Soviet mail system claim to be perfect. And, customers still have complaints.

Kathleen Zabelina, the director of a Moscow school of foreign languages, said some educational materials she ordered from the United States never arrived. But her mail company, Post International, charged her anyway. And then there's the check which Galina Komarova, office manager for The Los Angeles Times' Moscow bureau, sent to a bank in Malta through P.X. Post. It took 40 days to get there. And instead of being shipped through London, she said it was mysteriously postmarked in Belgium.

Post International's manager said she was aware of Zabelina's problem and had cancelled the postal charges for the lost books. She added that such an incident was understandable given the high volume of mail they receive. And, the owner of P.X. Post said he didn't recall Komarova's complaint specifically but acknowledged that such incidents occur rarely.

Still, sending mail abroad from Moscow is easier than it was six years ago when the three companies currently vying for business didn't even exist. Back then, sending mail was more of a risk, foreigners had to trust the gargantuan, impersonal and still notoriously unpredictable Russian postal system. Many foreigners then had a simple way of dealing with personal mail from friends back home: They asked them not to send any.

Now that there are choices, however, it can be frustrating and confusing to decipher which is the best choice. Each company claims to be cheaper, friendlier, faster and generally better than the others, and this competition has kept prices stable.

The oldest service, Post International, has been around since 1991. For $30 a month, clients can send up to a half pound of mail per week to the United States and Europe and pay only the postage for the destination country. That same monthly fee gets customers one pound of incoming mail per week. Anything over that is billed at a rate of $10 per pound.

"Sending mail is cheaper through us because you only pay postage," said Mackay, adding that the company's clients include CNN, Ernst & Young, KPMG, the American Medical Center and the Sun Group. "And if you stay within your limit, you don't pay."

Kingston, director of P.X. Post -- PI's principal competitor -- insists that his company's way of charging clients is cheaper. There is no membership fee, but prices for outgoing and incoming mail are higher than PI's. And, if a client spends $40 or more per month, P.X. delivers the mail free twice a week. Spend more than $100 a month, and they'll deliver every day. For receiving mail, there is a $10 minimum fee applied to incoming mail that is billed at a rate of $1.95 per 100 grams received from the United States or London.

"The primary difference [between us and PI] is quality of service and price," said Kingston who counts Price Waterhouse, Coopers & Lybrand, Arthur Anderson and Heinz among his clients.

"Anyone who sends a pound of mail a week will get 10 pounds back -- and that's what you end up paying for -- at a penalty rate," he added referring to PI's price structure.

Responding to Kingston, Mackay said, "That's actually not true." Mackay added that PI's pricing mechanism was just as transparent. But, she conceded, "If you're only sending one letter, you're probably better off going with them."

The third service, Global Post, has been in business in Moscow for three years. Vera Lipen, the manager of the company's Moscow office, cited her firm's pickup and delivery in Almaty, Kazakhstan as something none of the other service had. Another plus, Lipen said, is Global's Leninsky Prospekt location. But Global sends off mail to the United States and Europe less frequently than the competition -- only three days a week.

Global's basic prices are identical to Post International's, but Global clients have more flexibility because their mail weight limits are tallied on a monthly and not a weekly basis. Most of their clients, according to Lipen, are individuals rather than companies.

Reed Wallace of Moscow Finance Group, uses the service infrequently. "I get a couple of letters a month," Wallace said. "It's just a convenience so family can send mail occasionally. We use them because they're probably the cheapest in town. The important stuff we don't send through them. We send that through DHL or Federal Express."

As Moscow's foreign workers stay longer and longer and thus get on more and more mailing lists, incoming junk mail is a becoming a growing expense for Moscow-based companies. Firms like Coopers & Lybrand are now billing employees for what used to be a perk. And, they are looking for ways to get around services like PX, PI and Global.

"We're using the world mail service of DHL and it's cheaper for outgoing mail," said Svetlana Mureshova, who is in charge of the mail at Coopers & Lybrand. "We can send half a kilo for 62,000 rubles."

Such express mail services, of course, don't offer foreign addresses through which routine mail can then be forwarded to Moscow.

Despite some efforts to get around traditional private mail services, even disgruntled clients said they would rather put up with the occasional inconvenience than deal with going through wholesale change.

"There isn't a wide choice in Moscow," Zabelina said. "And it's a pain to change your mailing address when you have a business."