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Satellites make postal service more convenient

At the BP gas station and convenience store off Citrus Park Drive, Joyce Ruby ignores the fuel pumps, cigarette racks and coffee pots. Even the drink displays don't get her attention.

She heads straight for the small, blue-and-white office in the corner.

"I want to mail a CD," she tells employee Tracy Patrick after waiting in the late-afternoon rush.

"How soon do you want it there?" Patrick asks.

Two to three days is fine, Ruby says. Patrick returns with a small box, plops in the CD and tapes it up for safe delivery. The total is $3.85. Ruby pays and heads out.

Chalk up another satisfied customer at this popular U.S. Postal Service station.

"I come here all the time," she says.

The Postal Service implemented a building moratorium several years ago on traditional, stand-alone post offices. But while saving money, it still had to maintain, even expand, service, spokesman Gary Sawtelle said.

So the now-privatized agency turned to an old standby: opening up counters in unconventional places. Increasingly, convenience stores are seen as an ideal alternative.

Sawtelle said convenience stores offer prime locations with easy access. Within a district that stretches from central Florida to southwest Florida, the BP counter, one of 11 throughout Hillsborough County, is a major success story, he said.

The counter opened in spring 2002. This year it probably will do more than $1-million in business, said Mary Ann Knight, a Postal Service retail specialist who negotiates contracts with stores and other providers.

In other parts of Hillsborough, satellite offices operate in pharmacies, universities, a storage facility and a rare coin shop. They look like regular post offices, only smaller. And they do everything but deliver the mail.

Knight said another advantage is they don't charge extra for the mail service, as do specialty shops such as Pak Mail.

"It's really benefiting everybody," Knight said. "We are . . . especially working closely with the convenience store industry."

The increased foot traffic that comes with opening a postal service counter is helping the industry cope with a sharp drop in gas and cigarette revenues, said Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores.

Plans for a stand-alone post office near the Outback Steakhouse on Sheldon Road fizzled with the moratorium, Knight said. Yet for customers battling heavy traffic to reach far-flung post offices in Carrollwood, Town 'N Country and Odessa, the Postal Service wanted to provide some overdue relief.

It came with the BP station counter, she said.

As with other agreements, the Postal Service doesn't own the satellite office in Citrus Park. Instead, it signed an operating agreement with the property owner. The Postal Service provided the traditional blue-and-white building materials, and left construction up to the business people.

Under his lease agreement with the owners, BP store manager Brian Abde manages the store and counter. The arrangement entitles him to the standard cut of revenues from the Postal Service _ anywhere from 7 to 10 percent. The Postal Service's relative hands-off approach also allows him to set his own schedule.

He increased the counter's hours, remaining open longer on weekdays and Saturdays than the average post office. That's not unusual for satellite offices, Knight said. Abde said he may start taking customers on Sundays.

The declining payments from gas and cigarette companies is a sore point, but Abde said store revenues have doubled since the counter opened.

"We have to find a way to make money some way," he said.

Customer after customer praised the satellite post office for making their lives easier.

"I come here every day," said Maggie Wright, who works at LifeWay Christian Stores nearby. "We sell a lot of packages out of here."

Portia Scott, a pharmacist who lives nearby, sent off a package to her sister in South Carolina. She said she used to drive all the way to Tampa International Airport to handle her mail.

The idea of a post office counter within a convenience store still confuses some people. Some are advertised better than others, Knight acknowledged.

Patricia Burleson of Odessa, visiting the counter for the first time, said she drove around the building before realizing where to go.

That's not a problem for Chela Thompson, a Mary Kay saleswoman. She uses the counter at least once a week.

"I come in after 5 p.m. and they're still open," she said. "That's convenient."

_ Josh Zimmer covers University North, Keystone and Odessa and Citrus Park. He can be reached at 269-5314 or zimmersptimes.com

Vicky Yaman, right, gives change to customer David Goldsborough at the U.S. Postal Service's satellite location at a Citrus Park convenience store. Placing post office branches in private businesses saves the Postal Service money while bringing in more customers for the business.

Past the cigarettes and coffee, next to the Domino's Pizza you'll find Vicky Yaman, who staffs the tiny U.S. Postal Service satellite office in this Citrus Park convenience store.

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