Flats Programs Need More Study

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NEW ORLEANS -- Representatives from the U.S. Postal Service and the mailing industry said at the Spring 2003 National Postal Forum here yesterday that more study is needed before a new system for processing and handling flats is implemented.

John A. Rapp, USPS senior vice president of operations, discussed two research and development programs for flats that the postal service is considering.

One program, the Flats Sequencing System, would raise flat-sorting technology to the same level of sophistication as letter mail by sorting magazines, catalogs and other flats into delivery order.

The second, Delivery Point Packaging, would build on the Flat Sequencing System by sorting letters and flats into delivery order simultaneously, then bundling them into individual delivery packages.

The Flat Sequencing System could be operational by 2006 with Delivery Point Packager following in 2007. The USPS hopes to decide regarding the systems by the end of fiscal year 2004.

Rapp explained that the postal service is trying to determine the capacity, cost and space requirements of each program.

"We are also in the process now of identifying potential customer impacts," he said, adding that the USPS is setting up a Web site that will let small-business customers offer comments easily.

Whichever system is chosen, Rapp said, certain changes will have to occur. For example, flat mail will have to use an 11-digit barcode. Entry points may also change, he said.

Panel members offered some of their concerns with automation changes in flats processing. Jim O'Brien, director of distribution and postal affairs at Time Inc., said concerns included possible cost increases, creativity limitations and delivery performance problems.

"You don't want to go to an art director and say you are limited in your creativity," he said.

Overall, however, O'Brien welcomes flats automation.

"Anything [the USPS] can do to drive costs out of the system is going to help us control the future," he said.

Another panel member, Charles M. Howard, vice president of postal affairs and special projects at Harte-Hanks Direct Marketing, said it is "important for everybody here and everybody in the industry to understand that change is going to have to happen, period. And we need to really be thinking outside the box."

Rapp assured mailers in attendance that the postal service is "not going to do anything that will raise your costs just to lower ours."

Attendees also were given a just-released guidebook called "Guidelines for Optimizing Readability of Flat-Size Mail."

The panel also mentioned a summit on flats set for July 15-16 in Washington. Sponsored by associations such as Postcom, the Direct Marketing Association and the Mailing & Fulfillment Service Association, the summit seeks to begin a dialogue with the USPS concerning its future flat strategies. For more information, e-mail an inquiry to flatsconference@postcom.org or call 703/524-0096.

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