Thursday, December 20, 2012

Step forward or step back?

A recent letter from Ian Volner on behalf of PostCom to Mary Anne Gibbons of the USPS questions why the they are interested in explicitly identifying the "mail owner" as we embark on the new Intelligent Mail barcode.  I'm with him, as so many of us mail owners have expert mail service provider (MSP) representation to keep the postal minutiae at bay.  After all, mail owners are in "their" business, not the "mailing business."

That's the rock.  The hard place is where small business and nonprofit mail owners (SBNO's) get kicked out of automation rates.   I say "kicked-out" because to keep automation discounts SBNO's must  become their own MSP at best, or pay more to a MSP to create an Intelligent Mail barcode (IMb) at worst.  The USPS developed an online small business presort tool called "IMsb," but this amounts to the mailer becoming their own MSP without paying for software. (Your welcome, mail software suppliers and MSP's.)

This IMb barcode does nothing more for SBNO's.  Nothing more than the soon-to-be extinct PostNet barcode anyway, which was so conveniently included in every copy of Microsoft Word.

The USPS will say the IMb does great things for the mail owner.  For SBNO's it does nothing.  SBNO's for the most part do not want tracking, they just want reliable service.  Service performance is the USPS' internal responsibility, not the SBNO's.

Destination barcoding used to be the technical benchmark for automation rates.  No longer.  All those SBNO's who leveraged up to automation rates with manual preparation just hit one of two walls, either computerized mail presorting or down-grading to "machinable" mail.  Machinable mail is just naked automation mail without the barcode.

Imagine that!  Small mailers who use to manually prepare their mail for automation now have two choices; become very much more, or very much less sophisticated.

I question how many SBNO's will go the more sophisticated route, or will they choose to pay slightly higher rates instead?  Why is there no better solution for SBNO's to maintain automation rates, such as a fixed-coded IMb with simple destination coding (i.e. ZIP barcoding)?

The availablility of the IMsb tool is not the same thing as a solution for SBNO's.  In time the numbers will tell the story of SBNO's who do not show up in IMb full-service scans.  And who will care that an increasing portion of "machinable" volume will be slowed by an added OCR step within USPS processing plants?  (Hint: I will).          

Friday, November 30, 2012

Just how intelligent does nonprofit and small business mail need be?

Just how intelligent does nonprofit and small business mail need be?

  The Intelligent Mail barcode (IMb) deadline looms; January 28, 2013. PostNet is dead. In 2014, the IMb surges to  "Full Service," meaning each piece of mail has a unique sequence code for tracking as it enters the post office; ...across each sorter, dock, facility, mode of transport, etc.  With volumes of business mail already using the IMb-Full Service, must we ALL adopt it?  The USPS can already see data indicating weak points in processing and hand-offs. At what point does more data help the plant manager in Chicago know if s/he takes an eye off of operations for one day performance drops?

  So here we are. Perfect is the enemy of good.  The USPS would like business mailers (including small nonprofits and small business) to gear-up for IMb Full Service. 

  What's that entail?  Well, pre-January 28, 2013, it meant small nonprofit and small businesses that (1) know how to produce a mail-merge using PostNet  in MS Word, (2) manually sort their mail into 5-digit, 3-digit and ADC breaks, (3) use local tray tags from USPS Business Mail Entry and (4) know how to fill out a mailing statement ...qualify for very low-low postage called the "automation" rate.

  No more after January 28, 2013. REALLY no more after the IMb Full Service requirement becomes the minimum for automation rates in 2014. Manual mail preparation for small mailers looking for the lowest  postage just got more complex. This is the baggage added: the IMb encodes mail preparation references like mailing class, not just the destination information (ZIP code). It also encodes tray tags with mailer identification. Plus, a sequence number which cannot be re-used for 45 days. Finally, data for each mailing must be entered electronically via the postal web site.

  This alone is not really much to complain about. Those wanting the lowest postage in 2013 can jump through hoops to keep it. Those that don't can mail using the "machinable" rate. It is not much more than automation and does not require the IMb. For now I should say, not much more NOW; about $8 per thousand.

  How much might the difference grow to in 2015? 2016? After all, each of these "machinable" mail pieces will probably go through scanners to read the address and print a barcode, a simple extra step. Will it be an IMb barcode? Will it identify the class of mail? The mail owner? Probably not. most likely it will be a PostNet barcode sprayed merely  to speed mail on its way. Not much of a retirement for PostNet, really.
How many small "automation" nonprofits manually preparing their mail will understand the switch to "machinable?" "Barcode your mail" has been the mantra for years. Is the USPS explaining this to small mailers? No. The mantra these days is "Intelligent Mail." In fact, small "automation" mailers may swallow hard and take a huge leap. Not to full service but to full rate, and begin affixing stamps.

  This would be a huge disservice to small mailers. In the USPS' push to meet the delivery reporting required by the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 small mailers will be left to fend for themselves.

  These mailers are not looking forward to an easy-to-mail future. Quite the opposite.

  Yes, the USPS has released a file-upload tool for mailers under 5,000 names.  Not only do they deliver, the USPS is now your new software provider. The "IMsb" tool ("sb" for small business) will achieve every requirement of the IMb full service. That's great if small mailers appreciate making all the specification decisions computerized presorters do.

  Why must all small volume nonprofit mailer make this choice? To make the USPS better at THEIR job? How many will not invest the time and effort to follow the path to the IMb full service and yet still find they cannot survive without mailing?

  The answer is simple. Small volume mailers, nonprofits and small businesses alike should be able to produce a generic Intelligent Mail barcode that merely identifies the mail class and ZIP code. It should be incorporated into generally available word processing software such as PostNet was. It should receive "machinable" rates that do NOT drastically escalate over time because no extra steps are required by the USPS. And we should all go back to paying attention to our business plan or our mission, not grinding teeth over how to save pennies on postage.