Mailer: MERLIN's Magic Still Misfiring

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A Florida mailer said last week he is still having issues with the U.S. Postal Service's MERLIN automated acceptance and verification system, two years after he first reported problems.

However, the USPS said complaints about MERLIN have subsided since the system's launch in 2001 and that the remaining problems often result from mailers pushing the boundaries of postal specifications. MERLIN, which stands for Mail Evaluation, Readability and Look-up Instrument, replaced the Automated Barcode Evaluation, or ABE, system.

Ernie Broennle, vice president of Mail Unlimited Inc., Winter Park, FL, said his company has experienced two occasions in which the percentage of mail failed by MERLIN and that failed by an appeal analysis differed considerably.

In July, MERLIN passed 70 percent of a Mail Unlimited mailing at a USPS sectional center facility in Orlando, FL, well under the 90 percent minimum required for automation rates, he said. Mail Unlimited appealed the reading and sent the sample to a MERLIN in Chicago for further review. That machine gave the sample a 90 percent passing grade.

Any failing grade can look bad with clients, and appealing a failed MERLIN grade costs at least two days, Broennle said. Mail Unlimited appealed based on a visual reading of the mail with a magnifying eyepiece.

The problem found by the Orlando MERLIN -- a barcode less than 0.5 inches from the right-hand side -- had been the subject of an appeal more than a year ago by Mail Unlimited. In that case, the Orlando MERLIN gave a 60 percent failing grade, but the Chicago appeal reading was 78 percent, which, though not passing, showed a significant discrepancy, Broennle said.

Broennle's problems date to the postal service's launch of MERLIN in the Southeast in July 2001, when a flunking grade on a 250,000-piece mailing nearly cost his company $140,000 because it couldn't get automation rates. His most recent July 2003 complaint involves a much smaller amount, about $250, but it illustrates ongoing problems with the system, he said.

But according to John Sadler, manager of business mail acceptance with the USPS, complaints about MERLIN have quieted since the initial uproar in the months after the system's launch. MERLIN is actually more lenient than the standards provided by the Domestic Mail Manual, he said.

If mailers print to the specifications in the DMM, they won't have problems with MERLIN, Sadler said. It's when they push the specifications to the limit that they get variations in MERLIN readings.

Joel Thomas, executive director of the National Association of Presort Mailers, acknowledged that industry complaints about MERLIN have been limited in the past few months. However, just because mailers have adapted doesn't mean they're satisfied with the system, he said.

For starters, not every postal facility is equipped with MERLIN, as some check mail manually, Thomas said.

Another issue is that the DMM standards were written in the late 1970s and early 1980s for the first generation of barcode sorters, whereas current barcode sorters are much more tolerant of variations from the barcode standards, Thomas said. MERLIN is more precise than ABE but its grading is harsher than necessary, creating unneeded expense for mailers, he said.

"It fails lots and lots of mail the barcode sorters can read," Thomas said. "Not just occasionally but all the time."

A further issue is that variations seem to occur in readings between MERLIN machines, which can be attributed partly to lack of comfort with the system on the part of USPS operators, Thomas said.

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