"Polybagging—A Versatile and Cost-Effective Option for Direct Marketers"
[Column #72, 12/00]

Last month, I went over the basics of ink-jet imaging. As a natural offshoot of that topic, I want to touch on another subject that has made a lasting impression in the direct mail world—polybagging. I’m referring to those clear plastic bags you receive in the mail (or with your newspaper) nearly every day containing any number of printed items such as advertisements with free samples, magazines packaged with accompanying pieces, piggy-backed periodicals, subscription offers, computer magazines with free software, brochures, and statements. Arguably, polybagging provides the safest, most versatile, least expensive, and most attractive means of moving printed pieces through the mail.

Unlike European countries that have been polybagging their mail for years, the United States has only recently begun to catch on and experience growth in this area. Ironically, polybagging technology, with all its benefits in the mailing arena, is a very simple process. The polybag is formed over the stacked product—which can be thick or thin, big or small, and in any order—and then heat-sealed on the front, back, and top as it comes down the conveyor belt. I’m amazed at how such a seemingly uncomplicated idea has changed the mailing industry!

As is the case for many of the services we offer, the cost of polybagging decreases dramatically with the size of the job. For very small runs, this process is probably not cost-effective, but for anything with 2,000 or more pieces, polybagging may be the way to go. In fact, once a job hits 10,000 or more, has multiple pieces, and is large in format, it simply doesn’t make sense to use any other method. Compare even the fastest automated shrink wrappers that rarely exceed 2,000 pieces per hour to polybagging machines that that can run as high as 20,000 per hour and the winner is obvious. Alternatives, such as inserting material into envelopes, require more work (that translates into more machine time and higher costs) and do not have the polished look that polybagging offers. Additionally, the United States Postal Service approves some of the poly films for full automated postal discounts, and marketers no longer have to sacrifice these savings to use polybagging technology.

Direct marketers love the versatility that comes with polybagging. Virtually any combination of companion pieces can be stacked together to form the mailing (thicknesses can usually be well over two inches). And, unlike envelopes that have been purchased to accommodate exact specifications determined during the planning stages of the job, polybagging allows the customer to easily make changes midstream if necessary. Additionally, polybagging equipment typically has shuttle feeders and loading pockets designed to handle objects of all shapes and sizes. This affords creativity in determining what goes into the mailing and provides automated feeding, which saves time and money.

The conveyors are also equipped to turn pieces at a right angle allowing the spine and folding edges to run in other directions besides parallel to the seam. Other technology such as lap cards, selective pockets, inkjet printing, and spot glue to hold pieces in place can be used in conjunction with polybagging. And, to make the bag user friendly, easy-to-open perforated seams are commonplace. Polybagging equipment is also easily adapted to other mailing processes and can feed into automatic sorting, stacking, and strapping machinery.

Another benefit of polybagging is the natural advertising that comes with its design. What better way to showcase that beautifully printed piece so painstakingly created with the joint effort of designers, printers, and finishers. No extra costs are incurred to design an envelope, and when desired, the contents can be hidden with colored or printed film. If security is necessary, opaque inks with knocked-out mailing areas are just as effective as opaque envelopes. Printed poly looks great and all types of inks—halftones, PMS colors, even metallics—work well. Modern equipment also allows for first-rate polybag ink registration.

Polybag films come in a variety of thicknesses. The most commonly used are one or two mils thick, but, depending on the contents of the package, four-mil film and even thicker can be used. For example, if the package must endure excessive handling, extreme temperatures, or unusual exposure to any matter, film thickness should be given special consideration. Environmentally friendly film is also widely available and is 100 percent recyclable.

Following are tips to use in the planning and production of your next polybag job:

Printing the address panel: Keep in mind that indicia and address label positioning usually run parallel to the spine edge of normal-sized mailings, not adjacent.
Content order: When possible, position the largest and sturdiest piece on the bottom. This is referred to as the carrier piece.
Polybag seam: The seam is usually between one and two inches wide. There is some flexibility when design considerations are important, but realize there are limitations especially when printed poly is desired.
Size allowance: When planning, remember chop seals on both ends of the polybag require at least 1/2 inch for excess film.
Label application: Before applying paper labels directly to the polybag, insist your finisher test adhesive strength prior to running the job. Poly film is a petroleum-based product that can cause difficulty in adhesion.
Printing on poly: Keep metallic inks away from all sealed edges.
Consult the United States Postal Service: To ensure maximum postal discounts and to avoid costly changes along the way, produce a sample before running the job and have it approved by your local postmaster.
Research shows that polybagged material is opened more frequently and more quickly than other seemingly equal direct mail pieces. With knowledge like that and a product so cost-effective and so versatile, why wouldn’t you use it?