You shouldn't have to share your address

If you're like most consumers, you've shared your physical address with dozens of businesses. We're used to divulging the private data anytime we send or receive mail, but is it really necessary?

If it were feasible not to share our addresses when ordering an item, many of us would probably opt out. Sharing your physical address is inefficient and potentially unsafe. Places of residence become outdated as we move, causing mail to arrive late or not at all. Criminals can also use addresses as ammunition for identity theft or fraud. P.O. Boxes and temporary storage lockers offer a little more security, but they're still inconvenient.

I'm not an expert on shipping, but as a customer I think we can do better. Here's what I see as the root of the problem:

In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to divulge a physical address to send or receive mail.

Online retailers only need to know who is receiving a package. They shouldn't be responsible for collecting, safeguarding and validating addresses for every customer. Putting that burden on the business is a lose-lose-lose situation: it's a liability to the company, the customer and the postal service.

An idea for managing addresses differently

  1. The customer registers an address or multiple addresses with a central authority such as the U.S. Postal Service. The system assigns her a unique "Mail ID."
  2. When the customer makes a purchase, she provides the Mail ID instead of her private address. (If you're familiar with payment tokenization, compare this to how online merchants store "tokens" instead of credit card numbers.)
  3. Receiving a package from the retailer, the postal service maps the Mail ID to an address on file. Ideally postal services could share an API, querying Mail IDs created by each other, so that the customer would only have to remember one ID.

A web UI for mapping your "Mail ID" to addresses might allow for cool features like custom filtering. Imagine setting up rules for physical mail that are similar to the custom email filters in Gmail.

Switching to Mail IDs from addresses could have a broad impact:

Impact on the customer

Pros

  • Greater privacy
  • Decreased risk of fraud
  • Fewer missed packages

Cons

  • Learning a new system
  • Remembering Mail ID

Impact on the retailer

Pros

  • Decreased liability
  • More accurate addresses
  • Avoiding lost revenue & customer complaints because of failed deliveries

Cons

  • Location is used for marketing / ad targeting
  • Customer could set up "filtering rules" to weed out promotional materials
  • Might complicate payment processing because some processors use address for verification

Impact on the postal service

Pros

  • Fewer expensive mail mix-ups
  • Greater data integrity
  • Opportunity to build and possibly monetize an address API

Cons

  • Widespread technical changes and employee re-training
  • Sorting mail might require different handheld technology

The "Mail IDs" concept has its flaws and I'm not sure if it will ever be feasible, given USPS infrastructure. But if a system like this were implemented, it would probably increase security and convenience for customers, retailers and shipping companies. It's time to rethink the accepted practice of sharing our location with every business that sends us mail.