ABE Machines Aren't Ready, Mailers Warn

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The USPS' Automated Barcode Evaluator system -- set to begin next week -- is not ready, according to reports from the mailing services industry.


Mailers have reported problems with ABE machines, training and procedural deficiencies and a general lack of confidence that the equipment consistently performs as reported. Mailing services companies are worried that the problems may mean that their customers fail to qualify for automated discounts and will have to pay additional postage because of equipment deficiencies.


A study conducted in February by the Mail Advertising Services Association, Alexandria, VA, after the ramp-up phase began on Feb. 1, found that less than 25 percent of members' automated mailings was tested since Feb. 1. For a third of that number, the reason was that postal personnel were unavailable, unwilling or not knowledgeable about the equipment. Twenty-six percent of the respondents said more testing was prevented because the equipment wasn't working or wasn't available at many sites around the country.


MASA also conducted a test using the same 100-count mail samples of live mail at four geographically dispersed ABE sites. Results varied by as much 27 percentage points for the same pieces of mail from machine to machine.


Don Harle, president of Mid-America Mailers, Hammond, IN, and MASA chairman, said that on April 10 his group showed the test results to John Ward, vice president of marketing systems at the USPS. Harle and other MASA employees also presented a plan to improve the ABE system that included establishing a way to verify the accuracy of the equipment and requesting a national implementation plan.


While Harle said that the two organizations agreed that MASA would propose a test of the variances from machine to machine and then talk about more changes in the long term, "my assumption is that they will move ahead with their formal implementation." Ward did not return calls for comment.


But Harle said the postal service indicated that "they have no specific plans or schedule for implementing beyond 70 percent. They did indicate they would take a good, hard look at what's happening at the 70 percent rule before they move beyond it, which I think is an encouraging sign."


So, even though the USPS originally said that barcode-acceptance requirements will be raised to 80 percent by July 1 and 90 percent by Sept. 1, "there is the possibility that this may change," Harle said.


According to Michele Denny, manager of business mail acceptance at the USPS, implementation -- which originally was set for May 1 -- will be postponed until May 4.


"It has to do with the way we do our accounting. Instead of starting on a Friday, we will start on a Monday," she said. "The process is still going on as planned."


"It's not fair to a customer to start an implementation procedure on a Friday night, so we've decide to wait until Monday and think of it as a fresh start," said Paulette Kelly, USPS marketing specialist.


According to Barry Brennan, MASA's director of postal affairs, a letter was sent to MASA by Anita Bizzotto, the former manager of business mail acceptance at the USPS, stating that 30,000 mailings had received ABE tests since the beginning of the ramp-up period and that 94.7 percent had scored above the 70 percent threshold.


Some district ABE coordinators have not reported problems with the system.


"When the machines are maintained in a closed and clean environment and maintenance is there to take care of them, they run very well," said Victoria Fontes-Rainer, business mail entry manager at the USPS' Phoenix facility. She added that 75 percent of her customers are passing.


Some say the key to ABE's success may be how the project is treated at the local level.


"I think that if the local people implement ABE with some reason, the system should work OK," Harle said. "If somebody is at 68 percent, for example, and a local person draws the line on them, that would be a pretty unrealistic stance. We would like to think the local people will work with these customers."


The ABE program, designed to determine qualification for automated mailing rates, has been criticised since it began field tests in 1996. Technical difficulties during previous tests forced several delays, and a series of modifications also was made to the software and machines.


Starting May 4, 70 percent of the barcoded mail pieces must meet the requirements for the batch to qualify for discounts. A tray with a minimum of 100 random pieces is passed through the system, which compares each with various acceptable standards.


The postal service has placed 257 ABE machines at the larger business mail entry units and detached mail units across the country. If there is an ABE machine at a site where a company delivers its mail, that mail is subjected to ABE. If there is no ABE system present, the mail is not subjected to ABE but the company still gets discounts.


However, the USPS said it hopes that 84 percent of barcoded mail will go through the ABE system -- 69 percent at USPS facilities and 15 percent in-house.
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