Unraveling the Mysteries of MERLIN

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In legend, Merlin was the sorcerer who guided King Arthur into manhood to become the king of England. Merlin gave Arthur the advice and counsel that let him rule justly.


In modern times, MERLIN, or Mailing Evaluation Readability Lookup Instrument, is a new U.S. Postal Service tool that gives mailers an unbiased ruling on their mail piece address and sortation quality. Thanks to MERLIN, companies that produce 100 percent accurate mail can expect savings in postage costs.


It affects you. Perhaps you've heard of MERLIN but are unsure what it means to the DM industry or how it affects you. Rumors abound that MERLIN slows production and produces more problems than it solves. The truth is that MERLIN will become an integral part of every mailing operation. Therefore, if you start working toward the guidelines now, you and your mailing house will be in a position to avoid postage penalties and reduce the risk of mail being delayed or returned.


The USPS started deployment of MERLIN to post offices in the Capital Metro, Eastern, Southeast and Southwest regions in 2002, with rollout continuing nationwide. The USPS also has granted 10 percent of the country's direct mail producers permission to house the tool on site based on the large number of mailing pieces that these companies produce and distribute.


Unlike its mythical namesake, MERLIN lacks the ability to magically transfigure mail with incorrect sortation, improper address location or barcode illegibility into perfect mail pieces. Instead, this tool lets mailers and the postal service ensure that the mail pieces produced and the sortation performed meet the published USPS standards and are truly eligible for the rate claimed.


Auditing and validating. MERLIN checks a sample of every mailing. For less than 10,000 pieces, it analyzes a sample of 500 pieces; for mailings greater than 10,000, the sample size is 1,000 pieces. The specific sample pieces are dictated by a random, computer-selected list of trays/sacks. MERLIN scans the tray tags; weighs each selected mail piece; measures the thickness and overall piece size; takes an image of the address, PostNet and Planet codes; images a sequence number on each sampled mail piece; and then produces an evaluation of the quality of the sampled mail.


The evaluation covers two areas: diagnostic information, which is feedback to the mailer dealing with issues that do not currently result in any increased postage penalties; and Postage Adjustments data that detail the results of a series of checks on areas that directly affect the post office's ability to process the mail efficiently and economically. These items include presort accuracy, PostNet barcode readability, weight and piece count accuracy and shortpaid metered mail on First-Class mail.


The diagnostic information returned by MERLIN provides the producer of the mail with feedback in address accuracy, mail piece characteristics, carrier route sequencing, Planet barcode readability and meter date recognition. No penalty is assessed to the mailer if these areas are found to be out of specification. The information is provided as a service to the mailer with the goal of improving quality over time. The USPS probably will begin to assess penalties at some time in the future for mail not meeting the specifications in these areas as well.


Each of the Postage Adjustment data areas has predetermined tolerances. Mail that falls out of the allowable tolerance band results in additional charges being levied by the USPS. As an example, MERLIN looks at PostNet bar codes and runs a barcode quality analysis on each piece of mail.


MERLIN checks the skew, rotation, the presence of voids and smears and the position of the code within the address block. This last check can be crucial for some mailers because it is possible that Automated Barcode Evaluation would pass a barcode but MERLIN would "fail" it. This is because ABE looks at the quality of the actual PostNet bar code, but it is not as strict as MERLIN about position or location.


Understanding the penalties. The established MERLIN standard for PostNet barcode quality is 90 percent compliance. Below that, the appropriate proportion of the entire mailing will be subject to the additional postage required to mail the mailing at a non-automated rate. Should the rate drop below 80 percent for the test pieces, the entire mailing would be subject to the increased charges. The USPS has established similar standards for sortation, labeling, piece count and weight.


Though mailers may appeal the results, they must either pay the additional charges to mail the job while the appeal is pending or hold the entire job until the appeal is heard and the results decided. In addition, though the mailer is given a chance to "rework" mail that was cited for improper sortation and labeling errors, there is no option to rework the pieces for PostNet barcode errors.


Next steps. To ensure that all your mail passes the MERLIN test immediately, consider working with a mailing house that already has the tool on its manufacturing floor. The manufacturer can get an early warning of any problems with the mail before it leaves the facility, and these mail producers are more likely to have a fuller understanding of MERLIN's intricacies.


Also, your direct mail is unlikely to avoid penalties if the spec design has not been approved by the mailing house and determined suitable for MERLIN evaluation. Your campaign may be the most innovative mailer yet; however, imagine that the 500,000-piece mailing receives a below-79 percent PostNet barcode readability error, which results in all of the mail being accepted at non-automation rates. The penalty will be around 5.8 cents per piece, for a total additional charge of $29,000. It's an expensive lesson.


MERLIN is here to stay and provides a level playing field for all mailers dealing with every Business Mail Entry Unit and Detached Mail Unit. The subjective approval process has been replaced with an objective process. Ensure that MERLIN doesn't put a spell on your next mailing and start working with it, not against it, as soon as you can.


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