Monday, July 6, 2009

Intelligent Barcodes are here!

They may save you $$ and aggravation. Eventually.

If barcodes—introduced about 25 years ago—revolutionized direct mailing by automating delivery, then intelligent barcodes go one step farther.

Postnet barcodes—that familiar “picket fence” on address panels—is really just a machine-readable presentation of the recipient’s address, sans the recipient’s name. The system has been evolving since its introduction.

V2 added 4 more digits after the basic 5-character zipcode to accommodate growing demand for new addresses. V3 added destination point barcodes (two additional machine-readable digits), but it didn’t enhance delivery speed, it didn’t reduce cost and it didn’t offer trackability.

When FedEx and UPS proved that they could track packages via barcodes, the bar was raised even higher. USPS knew it had to develop a comparable program or continue to lose market share to its two chief competitors. So about 10 years ago the USPS started working on the challenge. Voila! The Intelligent Barcode (IMB).

The IMB introduction took years longer than expected, cost much more than projected and did not solve everything it should have (this is a government project, after all!) It is, however, better than any predecessor and it becomes mandatory in November 2009.

The IMB which resembles the old barcode plus a reflected inverted mirror image of itself, increases the amount of data-on-board significantly. As a result it can do more. For instance:

You may get lower postage rates. It’s not firm yet, but the USPS has proposed that IMB-encoded letters and flats pay lower rates than mail using Postnet barcodes. If approved, this is doubtless a limited time offer as postnet phases out in May 2011. Stay tuned.

Get Free Address Correction Service (ACS). Yes, you still have to NCOA your data before you mail, but the new ACS service can catch outliers who made it through NCOA. Get corrected data electronically or the old fashioned “hard copy” way. You pick ‘em. Warning: setting up your account can be daunting.

Track your mail through the postal system with real-time on-line reports. Ever wonder what black hole your mail disappeared into? IMB will help explain the mysterious and find waylaid mail. And no, the mailshop is NOT responsible for your mail once it has been turned over to the USPS.

Which brings up:

USPS accountability. In a “Better Late than Never” move, the USPS is finally—200 years after Ben Franklin started it — putting accountability measures into place for itself. The IMB will help the USPS tell where there are repetitive roadblocks and service slow downs so the USPS can take corrective measures. The USPS’s standard of service states that 90% of domestic standard mail will reach its destination within 10 days. IMB will help prove (or disprove) the case.
Since the long-awaited IMB phase-in period has finally begun, expect to see the new barcodes in your mailbox soon. However, not all the benefits are immediately available to everyone. Thousands of smaller post offices around the country still lack equipment needed to support ACS and mail tracking.

OK, it’s not perfect. It never is. But IMB is a step in the right direction. In the short term it can help keep your data cleaner and it might save you postage. In the longer term it will give you information not currently available about tracking your mail.

All good things take time.

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