USPS Adjusting MERLIN, Delaying Postage Assessment

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High failure rates and a negative reaction to the MERLIN barcode readability test from the mailing community has forced the U.S. Postal Service to postpone assessing postage for barcode failures until software adjustments are made.


John Sadler, manager of business mail acceptance, said the USPS would release new software in late September or early October for the MERLIN machines. Once the software changes are made, a 60-day phase-in will begin during which no additional postage will be levied relating to barcode quality.


The USPS began deploying 200 Mail Evaluation, Readability and Look-up Instruments, known as MERLINs, across the Southeast in July, starting in Tampa, FL.


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 also is used for letters and flat mail, whereas ABE was used only for letters. If MERLIN rejects any mail, mailers don't receive automation discounts, and those costs could be passed on to the companies sending the mailings.


MERLIN must read 90 percent of barcodes in the sample for the mailing to pass the barcode readability test. If results fall below 80 percent, the entire mailing fails. If this happens, it falls to a nonautomation category, the next best rate category for which it qualifies.


In July, the MERLIN system detected many barcode errors, and, prompted by complaints, the USPS added 60 days from when the machines were deployed before mailers were assessed additional postage for barcode problems.


Failures and complaints continued, however, and the USPS has seen a failure rate of 24 percent, Sadler said.


"The current barcode specifications were set a little too tight," he said. "So we will make software modifications to correct the problem."


In addition, much of this mail had run successfully on the ABE program, Sadler said, so the new software will set parameters on MERLIN to those on the ABE machine and become "more ABE-like."


Deployment of the MERLINs will not be interrupted, Sadler said. The USPS will deploy five machines per week in the Southeast and Southwest through March 2002. The USPS has placed more than 40 machines in six Florida districts.


The USPS also will conduct a two-week test in the Southwest on what printer equipment is causing the most failures for barcode readability for MERLIN. Once compiled, the USPS will share the information with the mailing community.


Sadler also said the USPS may test the ABE and MERLIN machines in general to see whether the programs are working.


The changes leave some in the mailing community pleased, yet skeptical.


"I'm pleased the postal service has made an effort to correct the problems we've been seeing, but we'll have to see, after testing, if this will work," said Barry Brennan, a postal consultant in Spotslyvania, VA.


Others think the changes are too little, too late.


"In all, I feel it is a small victory," said Ernie Broennle, director of information services at Mail Unlimited Inc. in Orlando, FL. "The USPS thinks the software is going to be a silver bullet that cleans everything up, but that remains to be seen." Broennle's company produces address and barcode images from four major manufacturers on nine platforms but still cannot meet the requirements.


As for the additional 60-day extension, Broennle said, "If the post office has five years to develop a machine that they think is workable, why are they only giving their customers 120 days to react to it?"


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