"Keeping Up with Changes in the USPS"
[Column #34, 10/97]
Keeping up with changes at the United States Postal Service (USPS) is mind boggling. Just when we think we've gotten one of their requirements under our belt, it becomes obsolete and we find ourselves changing things to satisfy a new requirement.
Nevertheless, as a full-service trade bindery and mailing facility, it is our job to keep up with these sweeping changes to ensure that our customers are getting the best postage rates possible. By now, many of the progressive mailers in the United States understand the volume of savings they can realize by making sure they follow these regulations carefully.
Perhaps the best advice I can offer is not to fear the complexities or absurdities of the USPS requirements. If you don't understand them, make sure you have a mail house that does! Or better yet, consult your local postal business center (they specialize in business mailings) for advice. They are very helpful and are fully equipped to handle your questions and provide you with valuable guidance during the design process. We all know what a difference it can make to be proactive once in a while! The following phone numbers may be helpful to you. Baltimore Area Business Center (410) 347-4337, Washington, DC Area Business Center (301) 565-2177, and Northern Virginia Area Business Center (703) 207-6800.
I want to discuss two recent changes that have a direct bearing on the printing community. This subject can be quite confusing so if you need clarification, consult the USPS monthly publication Mailers Companion. That's where we found most of this information.
The first change seems to have the whole direct mail world in a tizzy and affects any business reply or direct mail card (First Class or Standard A) where the mailer is seeking qualification for automated rate discounts. Any card six inches or more in length now requires a minimum 9-point thickness to get any kind of automation postal discount. This means that the thickness of the piece as it goes through the mail must total 9 points. Therefore, if it is a single folded piece, the double thickness must be at least 9 points. Because the old regulations required a minimum 7-point thickness, paper companies were producing inexpensive 70-pound stocks that bulked up to 7 points, were readily available to printers, and met the USPS requirements. There is no cheap, easy-to-find, 9-point paper and the mailing world is scrambling. Mailers are being forced to use a cover-grade stock to qualify for automation discounts. This leaves them hoping paper companies will react quickly to this need.
These requirements only apply when the mailer wants to obtain automated rates, and for business reply mail to qualify for those rates, it must meet the same requirements as any other mail. For example, it must be tab-sealed or glued shut across the open end if it is a folded piece. This can be quite a challenge when the mailer must rely on the respondent who is mailing the piece back to seal it up! Although the difference between automated and nonautomated rates for a business reply card can be as much as eight cents per piece, nonautomated rates can provide mailers the luxury of sending odd sizes and thickness' when desired. Before you get too upset, calculate your estimated rate of return and the cost savings for automated rate discounts. You may find it is still worth your while to print on the cheaper paper and get a nonautomated rate.
The other recent change that has occurred relates to the move update process for presorted and automation rate First-Class mail. When a mailer purchases First-Class postage, they are buying a complete service. That service includes quicker delivery time, forwarding services whenever possible utilizing move update information, and notification of the recipient's new address. The USPS estimates that one out of six people move each year resulting in approximately 38 million moves per year. Because of this astronomical figure, they are now requiring mailers to update their lists with move updates once every six months. Failure to comply with this new regulation forces mailers to give up some of these benefits.
Two basic methods (approved by the USPS) are available for mailers to update lists: National Change of Address (NCOA), and Fastforward (for multiple optical character readers, MLOCRs). NCOA is a service provided by private sector companies that are certified and licensed by the USPS. These companies receive updated change-of-address information every two weeks from the USPS. (The USPS maintains a database that is updated using move cards from their customers.) Mailers use these private companies to update their lists. List updating using NCOA is quick and easy and can be done via modem. Fastforward provides electronic readers that read the address using the appropriate service endorsement, apply the barcode, and automatically provide the change of address. This service is commonly used by companies that electronically sort business mail. These update services can cost anywhere from two to five dollars per thousand names depending on the size of the list and condition of the data.
The USPS understands that different mailers have different needs. In response to those needs, they provide other options should the mailer find that regular NCOA updates are not necessary or economical. The two most common services (provided by the USPS) that can be used in lieu of NCOA updates are Address Correction Requested (ACR) and Address Change Service (ACS). These services provide a host of options including address services, forwarding services, return services, and change services. The mailer pays a fee (based on which service he or she selects) for each piece that requires the service. In addition, the service requested must be imprinted on each mailing piece. If the mailer does not update the list and does not request address correction services on the piece, the USPS will charge a premium for the mailing and returned pieces will not indicate the reason for return or the new address.
For any mailer that claims their list has been updated in the past six months, the USPS requires a certification statement with each automated or presorted First-Class mailing verifying that the mailer used a USPS-approved updating tool. Mailers should maintain files that would substantiate the update occurred in case the USPS requires it.
When it comes to mailing issues, don't assume you know it all, surround yourself with knowledgeable people, contact your local post office, and plan ahead. All of these things can save you headaches, and better yet, money. We recently added a new seminar to our schedule geared directly toward print salespeople and pertaining only to mailing and ink jet imaging issues. Just taking the mystery out of some of this stuff can make a world of difference.