The Secrets of Mail Success
On May 14, the United States Postal Service (USPS) will enact its most sweeping change since the 1996 Domestic Mail Classification Schedule and Rate Schedule Change. A new weight- and shape-based postal rate system designed to reward mailers whose items are compatible with the USPS’s automated equipment is going into effect. Items requiring manual processing because of size or shape are going to cost more—a lot more.
Mary Ann Bennett, president and CEO of The Bennett Group, Rochester, N.Y., and a leading expert in mail and postal regulations, explained the USPS is designed to move mail, not store and warehouse it. Mail must move through the system as quickly as possible. “Every postal program, every piece of equipment, every requirement is to facilitate the efficient and accurate movement of mail from the acceptance dock to ... mailbox[es],” she said. The keys, stressed Bennett, are avoiding flats and parcels, and discovering what constitutes a letter at the USPS. “Most people would be very surprised. Certainly, 99 out of 100 designers don’t realize the difference,” she commented. “In fact, a 64-page catalog can be a letter. Anything that is 61⁄8x111⁄2" and 1⁄4" thick is a letter. The discounts are out there; the knowledge is not. Part of the revenue [the USPS] generates is due to our ignorance.”
Bennett believes the new postal rate system is a golden opportunity for industry professionals to show customers how to take advantage of significant price incentives rewarding efficient, automation-friendly mailer designs. For instance, marketing and sales pros typically like mailing materials unfolded as flats for purely aesthetic reasons, but “tradition is out the door when it comes to postage,” she said. “Folding the materials into a letter-shaped mail piece will not change the impact of the information, but it will affect the mailing costs considerably.”
It’s Not Hip to be Square
Square is out; rectangle is in. Period. Automation-incompatible square shapes tumble around in the USPS’s equipment, and ultimately require manual handling. Rectangle shapes, on the other hand, flow right along. However, the orientation of the piece is essential in qualifying for the best rates. “A good rule of thumb is to go for designs that are longer than they are taller, and keep the address perpendicular, rather than parallel, to the shorter dimension of the piece,” advised Bennett.
Essentially, the critical criteria of totally automation-compatible mail concern dimensions, fold location, address orientation, flexibility, POSTNET barcode and weight. To help the marketplace grapple with the changes, Bennett offers the “Mary Ann Makes Mail Easy Kit.” Available at www.makemaileasy.com, the product provides tools and information for determining the shape and mailing category for any mail piece, and a variety of do’s and don’ts for sealing, folding and binding. For instance, machinable letters and cards must not be less than 5" long, 31⁄2" high and .007" thick, but no more than 111⁄2" long, more than 61⁄8" high or greater than 1⁄4" thick. Physical standards for cards claimed at card rates are not less than 31⁄2" high, 5" long and .007" thick, but no more than 41⁄4" high, more than 6" long or greater than 0.016" thick. The pieces should be rectangular, with four square corners and parallel opposite sides. Letter-size, card-type mail pieces made of card stock may have finished corners that do not exceed a radius of 1⁄8".
“I always tell people to stay away from the minimums. If the cutter makes a mistake—and it happens—nothing will make the piece mailable,” cautioned Bennett. “Always give yourself an 1⁄8 of an inch or even 1⁄4 of an inch.”
Interestingly, Bennett pointed out a 16-page brochure measuring 107⁄8x173⁄4" that is folded to 51⁄2x83⁄8"—and with the address perpendicular to the shorter dimension of the piece—can be totally automation-compatible and qualify as a letter. But, if the address is parallel to the shorter dimension, it no longer qualifies as a machinable letter.
Non-machinable letters are also those with an aspect ratio (length divided by height) of less than 1.3 or more than 2.5, as well as those enclosed in any plastic material, or having clasps, strings, buttons or similar closure devices. Letters containing items such as pens, pencils or loose keys or coins causing the thickness of the mail piece to be uneven are also problematic. Nor can the mailer be too rigid—to be machinable, it must bend easily when subjected to a transport belt tension of 40 lbs. around an 11" diameter turn.
Read ’Em and Weep
So, where does the new USPS rate structure leave mailers of catalogs and periodicals? Although online ordering is up, research shows consumers are still initially shopping for items from catalogs, and all the creative designs and folds in the world can’t help magazine publishers take advantage of letter-size discounts. “The PRC [Postal Regulatory Commission] really showed the wisdom of Solomon. Current periodicals’ rates allow or actually encourage a lot of mailer behavior that is inefficient and labor-intensive for the [USPS]. That has led to rapid increases in ... costs to handle periodicals, which in turn has driven large rate increases for periodicals,” commented Mark White, vice president, manufacturing, for New York-based U.S. News & World Report. “The PRC rejected the Postal Service’s ill-conceived proposal and laid the groundwork for periodicals’ rates that are aligned with the Postal Service’s costs. But the PRC did not move to fully cost-based periodicals’ rates yet because of the ‘rate shock’ that would cause some inefficient mailers.”
The upshot to the rate changes is incentives to merge mail streams, such as through co-mailing. Not only is the carrier-route discount higher, but the new bundle and container charges provide additional incentives to co-mail. “We recently consulted with another publisher that had numerous mail streams, and was therefore mailing inefficiently,” he continued. “We worked with the publisher to rationalize its versions, co-mail its copies and engage in better drop-shipping, resulting in reductions in postage costs of about $.09 cents per copy, or 25 percent of all postage costs. With the PRC rates, the cost gap between the way it used to mail and the way it mails today would be even wider.”
Regardless of the type of piece being put into the
system, everyone is going to have to start thinking outside the mailer and considering the project through delivery. “The bottom line for periodicals mailers—and for mailers in a lot of other classes, as well—is that production and distribution can no longer be thought of separately,” said White.
Particularly with shape-based mail rate incentives, manufacturers and distributors who get themselves quickly up-to-speed on the revised postal rate system can not only help customers save money, stressed Bennett, they can gain a serious competitive edge in a very challenging market.
Related story: Tips for Cutting Postage Costs