Mailers Give Thumbs Down to Problem-Plagued ABE System

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WASHINGTON -- Hardware and handling concerns have some direct mailers anxious about the U.S. Postal Service's new program to determine qualification for automated mailing rates.

The USPS' Automated Barcode Evaluator (ABE) system, which began its ramp-up testing stage Feb. 1, received a thumbs down from some industry executives at the Mail Advertising Service Association's (MASA) recent Mailer Strategies Conference here.

MASA members are worried that their customers may fail to qualify for automated discounts and have to pay additional postage charges because of deficiencies in the equipment.

"My concern is that the postal service is talking about how good ABE is, but if the system isn't working properly and if the barcoded mail doesn't pass through based on the system, we'll end up having to pay," said Don Johnson, president of American Mail Service Inc., Ralston, NE, which hasn't yet received results from mail it tested on ABE machines. The direct mail, fulfillment and computer service company mails more 2 million pieces a week.

"I tell all of my customers how much the postage is going to be based on the barcoded rate, and then I send the mailings," Johnson said. "But if the mail does not pass ABE, then it's difficult to go back and tell your customers: 'The barcode failed, so you have to pay us another rate.' As far as they're concerned, it's our fault."

The ABE system began field testing in late 1996, but technical problems delayed its launch by at least a year. The USPS, however, says it is now confident the ABE performs effectively and accurately.

Some mailers remain unconvinced and also are troubled by the distribution of the ABE machines.

"As we understand it, there is no national standard for deployment," said Don Harle, president of mailing services company Mid-America Mailers, Hammond, IN, and MASA chairman. "It's a USPS district-level decision as to where ABE machines are used, and many members fear that their business customers may move from one mailing house to another because of the presence of ABE and because they do not want to run the risk of using it."

The postal service has placed about 270 ABE machines at the larger business mail entry units and detached mail units throughout the country. According to Harle, if there is an ABE machine at a site where a company delivers its mail, then that mail is subjected to ABE. If there is no ABE system present, then the mail is not subjected to ABE but the company still gets discounts.

The USPS said it hopes that 80 percent to 90 percent of barcoded mail will go through the system.

Barcodes on mail dropped at ABE sites are examined for accuracy and qualify for automated discounts accordingly. A tray with a minimum of 100 randomly selected pieces is passed through the ABE system, which compares each barcode with various acceptable standards.

Beginning May 1, 70 percent of the barcoded mail pieces must meet the requirements for the batch to qualify for discounts. By July 1, the percentage will be raised to 80 and by Sept. 1, 90 percent must be up to standard to receive discounts.

Some mailers say they are concerned that the system is misused or not used at all.

"Oftentimes, it goes months at a time before I ever get anything back from the postal service letting me know if the mail was checked and fine or failed," Johnson said. "My concern is that there are many companies like ours where mail is not checked at the DMU or bulk mail center and that postal service employees don't like the system and run as little mail through it as possible."

Cheryl Beller, customer service support specialist in business mail acceptance at the postal service, tried to assure mailers that the system is the right -- albeit evolving -- solution.

"At this point, ABE hasn't failed any mailings in this testing phase," she said. "And most mail is being inspected. In fact, ABE is currently hitting 80 percent of all barcoded mail." She added that the USPS is training postal employees at all of the larger business mail entry units.

Some mailers are happy with the system.

The system "is more forgiving than you'd realize," said Peter Grottini, vice president of operations at David J. Thompson, Bloomsburg, PA. The mailing services company has been testing ABE for about 13 months.

Even Johnson is optimistic overall.

"The ABE program is in its essence very good and will expedite the delivery of mail in the long run," he said. "I think once they get the machine working, the system will run more smoothly."

Harle encourages taking advantage of the ABE test period.

"The most important thing we want to do is produce good barcodes," he said, "and if a well functioning ABE is telling people that they're producing poor barcodes, they should get to work on it."

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