Mangled Mail

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

The U.S. Postal Service thought it was doing something good when it started installing automated flat sorting machines last year. These sorters work faster than the old ones used by the USPS, a boon for catalogers and publishers.

But speed isn’t everything. Because of a glitch in the feeders, the new machines have ripped the covers off many magazines and catalogs, resulting in untold cost to mailers. And the problem isn’t likely to be solved soon.

The USPS hopes to secure funding for a six-part enhancement for the feeders by December. Why wait until then? The process has been delayed by a freeze on the postal service’s capital assets, according to Jerry Cerasale, vice president for government affairs at the Direct Marketing Association. And even when funding is authorized, it will take about a year for all the machines to be retrofitted.

“We’re urging them to move forward,” said Cerasale. “Do it now.”

“The problem seems to be larger, not surprisingly, than what the postal service seems to think it is,” added Ed Gleiman, a DMA consultant and former chairman of the Postal Rate Commission.

The mess began shortly after the USPS began placing machines in 239 sites around the country. Installation began in April 2001 and was finished a year later. The USPS has received 1,200 complaints about missing or torn covers, from firms ranging from L.L. Bean to Condé Nast.

The USPS protests that 98% to 99% of all magazines and catalogs get through successfully, but mailers say even that is not good enough.

In some cases, subscribers have received a plastic bag containing only the cover of the magazine. Others have gotten the cover of one magazine combined with the inside pages of another. One publisher had covers and a renewal notice wrap ripped off.

Since January, Inside Communications has had to remail about 500 copies of Inside Triathlon, a monthly with a circulation of 20,000, by first class mail.

“The basic problem is that the covers are being ripped off,” said Billy Edwards, customer service administrator for the firm, which is located in Boulder, CO.

“They deliver the cover in a plastic bag and say, ‘This is all we have.’”

Inside Triathlon, with its September issue, has changed its format so that two covers are glued together and then bound to the magazine at an additional cost of about $12,000 per year. “It’s more expensive, but a little more bulletproof than what we’ve been doing,” Edwards said.

Time Inc.’s customer service center in Tampa, FL began getting complaints about a year ago. Many magazines have been affected, including Time, Sports Illustrated, People and Southern Living.

“We see complaints on a regular basis,” said Bob O’Brien, vice president of postal affairs for Time Customer Service Inc. and vice chairman of the Mailers Technical Advisory Committee. “It’s not a flood. But every week we’re receiving some complaints about torn or damaged covers.”

To accommodate customers, Time either replaces the magazine or extends the subscription. “If some people take the time to complain, [you have to wonder] how many had problems and didn’t complain,” he said.

“That’s what you always worry about.”

Making matters worse is the fact that the USPS initially tried to hand the problem back to the mailers. It said that publishers should take on the added costs to make changes to covers or bindings, according to Rita Cohen, senior vice president for legislative and regulatory policy for the Magazine Publishers Association.

“We said, ‘That’s not the right solution,’” Cohen said.

“The postal service needed to figure out why it was having problems and make sure the machines didn’t handle magazines too roughly.”

Time Inc.’s O’Brien agrees that the USPS is responsible.

“We don’t want to have to make a substantial investment in trying to change the nature of our product to fit the equipment,” O’Brien said. “The mail was there. They should build machines to accommodate the mail.”

L.L. Bean starting receiving complaints from customers and employees in July 2001. It is working with its printer to explore possible changes to the catalog, said spokeswoman Mary Rose MacKinnon.

The New Yorker also has received complaints, but doesn’t plan to change its production process. “The postal service is going to fix the problem,” said spokeswoman Perri Dorset.

Gleiman agreed that complete redesigns would be unreasonable.

“There’s a reasonable accommodation that can be asked for on both ends and it’s important that the postal service not move too heavily to ask industry to significantly change the way it has been preparing materials,” he said.

And what does the postal service plan to do?

The USPS, which processes about 16.6 billion catalogs and 10 billion periodicals (including both magazines and newspapers) annually, has a three-pronged strategy.

First, it determined best practices for operating and loading the machines and trained employees on those procedures, an effort already showing improved results, according to Thomas Day, the USPS’ vice president of engineering.

An instructional video was distributed last month in anticipation of the busy fall mailing season.

Day added that the problem peaked about five months ago with 102 complaints per week. Over a five-week period in August complaints fell to 12, 21, 15, 32 and 14, respectively.

In its second approach, the postal service determined through working with printers and publishers the key elements contributing to torn covers: product weight, paper finish and binding.

“As you fold that piece of paper and stitch it, that’s where the damage first begins and when you put it through multiple automated handlings it just magnifies that,” Day said.

An advisory is to go out to mailers outlining what to watch for in those three areas.

Finally, the USPS hopes to secure funding to retrofit the feeders by December.

The USPS is negotiating with Northrop Grumman over the price of the enhancement parts, said Day. Tests showed “significantly reduced damage” with the upgrade, he noted.

The new equipment sorts at some 18,000 pieces per hour compared with 8,000 to 9,000 pieces an hour with the old machines, a 27% improvement in productivity.

“Even though the trend seems to be coming down, data from our customers indicates that it’s a serious problem,” Day said.

“[Publishers and catalogers] have got a lot of money tied up in this and that’s why we’re making an investment to retrofit the equipment.”

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