MERLIN Finds Mailers Not Meeting the Bar(Code)

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It may have a magical name, but the U.S. Postal Service's newest automated acceptance and verification system spells trouble if you ask one mail shop. And because of that, he may be hit with extra postage costs of $140,000.


The postal service began deploying 200 Mail Evaluation, Readability and Look-up Instruments -- known as MERLINs -- across the Southeast earlier this month, starting in Tampa, FL. By early next year, it will move on to the Southwest. In essence, MERLIN is a more sophisticated version of the Automated Barcode Evaluation program, which evaluates barcode quality.


MERLIN, however, automatically evaluates all USPS mail requirements, from mail piece characteristics to presort verification to barcode quality. It's also used for letters and flat mail, whereas ABE was used only for letters. If MERLIN rejects any mail, the mailers don't receive automation discounts -- and those costs could be passed on to the companies sending the mailings.


Many barcode errors have been detected in the past few weeks because the bars were either too wide or too narrow, but at least one mailer says it's not his fault. Ernie Broennle, director of information services at Mail Unlimited Inc. in Orlando said his company produces address and barcode images from four major manufacturers on nine platforms, but it still cannot meet the requirements.


"In the last eight months, we have upgraded all of our ink-jet, laser print and impact printers," Broennle said. "Yet we cannot produce a barcode that meets the new standard."


Broennle found out his mail was flunking 2 1/2 business days before MERLIN's scheduled activation in his area. Other mailers in the Tampa area also didn't meet MERLIN's standards, the postal service said.


"We were told by a postal clerk on July 13 that 250,000 laser letters [we] just dropped off would not pass MERLIN, and, 'Oh, by the way, it's being taken live on Monday, July 16,' " he said.


Mail Unlimited sends 2.7 million pieces of automated mail each month, so it could cost more than $140,000 a month if the company doesn't get automated rates. Broennle, whose mail was passing the ABE tests, filed a complaint with the USPS to delay implementation of MERLIN. As a result of that and other complaints, the USPS is adding 60 days from the time the machines are deployed before mailers get assessed additional postage for barcode problems.


In some cases, it's the mail shops who are failing, but equipment manufacturers also are failing, said Michele Denny, manager of marketing technology and channel management at the USPS, though "there are lots and lots of mailings that are also passing." USPS officials are talking with printing engineers to determine whether certain print technologies inherently produce poor-quality barcodes.


The Tampa-area mailers that experienced Mail Unlimited's problems -- and that were prematurely assessed additional postage after failing the barcode quality test -- are receiving refunds. Broennle, however, isn't satisfied.


"We understand that there will be a grace period until Sept. 16, but this is still not enough time. The only thing we can hope for is that the manufacturers change their systems," he said. "However, many of them only have certain fonts, and we can't expect them to change them in the amount of time [the USPS is] proposing."


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