Friday, October 10, 2008

Want to make extra money working at home?

In days of yore, maybe you could make a living—or at least earn enough to pay the phone bill—by stuffing envelopes at home in the evenings and weekends. The kids could help, too, it was that easy.

No more. Today’s mailshop is surprisingly high-tech, and getting more so.

Mom and Pop lost out about 20 years ago when barcodes, presorts and postal reports became de rigueur. The required software and equipment cost more than the kitchen table crew made in a year. Exit Mom and Pop.

As computerization expanded, the high-tech movement gained momentum. Mail had to be reliably “machine readable.” That meant addresses in specific fonts…in exact locations…and with enough density and contrast to enhance machine readability.

Precision and predictability became the mantra. Mailshops that couldn’t deliver both joined Mom and Pop in the unemployment line.

Because high-speed machine processors had trouble with self-mailers, newsletters and other flapping multi-sheeted mail, mailshops bought tabbers to close the gap and stop the flap.

Merlin ratcheted up the ante yet again. Merlin confirmed addresses didn’t smear, run or chip, that they were straight and not dot-matrixed. Mail that didn’t pass Merlin lost postage discounts. A lot of mailhouse equipment was rendered obsolete overnight.

Merlin changed inkjets, too. After Merlin, mailshops stocked a variety of inks to support different paperstocks. Since Merlin monitored address quality, machine operators had to know which inks to use on gloss stocks…newsprint…60# white offset. Use the wrong ink, and you’ve bought a postage problem.

Basic meter inks went high tech, too. Tiny metal fibers embedded in the ink alerted postal machinery that the meter was legitimate and not an illegal facsimile. Mailshops replaced their meters.

Even affixing stamps has evolved. Not long ago, all stamps were lick ‘em and stick ‘em. Mailshops bought stampers that could do the trick. Now USPS sells mostly pressure sensitive stamps and mailshops have new stamping equipment

Virtually every facet of mailshop production has changed in recent memory. Mom and Pop wouldn’t recognize the computers, high-speed readers, computerized equipment or the complicated software needed to run today’s basic mailshop. A study issued last year by a printing industry association determined that getting into the mailing business requires a minimum investment of $500,000 for equipment and $400,000 for salaries. Mom and Pop wouldn’t have a chance any more.

And changes are still coming. By next year, intelligent barcodes will be mandatory. Once again, mailshops will be replacing equipment, buying multi-thousand dollar licenses, and adding software to support the 65-digit barcodes.

But not all changes are hardware/software. Staff has evolved in sophistication, too. They have to know complicated rules on mail preparation, where to buy special stamps, how to schedule drop shipments. They have to be researchers, politicians, technicians and manual laborers.

Procedural changes are afoot as well. Starting in late November, all presorted mail must be NCOA’d. Mailshops miss that little detail at their own peril.

As the USPS has propelled this evolution, the USPS (Direct Mail Manual) has grown thicker, attesting to the operational complexity mailshops face today. Once a modest directory, the DMM today is the size of the DC Yellow Pages. That complexity has taken a toll. Seemingly contradictory requirements cause confusion and misunderstanding on a regular basis between mailshops and postal workers. Worse yet, the USPS does not uniformly follow its own guidelines, though it is making efforts to resolve discrepancies.

To that end, the USPS has just announced Service Standards for mail delivery. For years the USPS has held mailers accountable for badly prepared mail and non-deliverable addresses. Now the USPS will hold itself accountable for mail delivery.

Using intelligent barcodes to track mail through the postal system, the Service Standards call for most standard mail to be delivered within 11 days; First Class in 1-3 days; periodicals in 1-9 days and packages in 2-8 days. Facilities failing to meet the Service Standards will be penalized.

Mailshops are rejoicing. For years clients have held mailshops responsible for mail entered into the postal system. (“You touched it last! Now find my missing mail!”) Finally the USPS will hold itself accountable for delivery.

So where is the mailshop industry heading? Obviously, to ever greater computerization, to faster, more complex machinery and more expensive software. That’s inevitable as the USPS seeks to increase volume and reduce cost. Probably to smaller, more targeted and more personalized mailings. That’s the predictable outcome of postage rate increases and the success of alternative media.

Yes, the mailing industry and USPS are in a dance together. The Post Office plays the tune, but the mailing industry pays the piper.

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