USPS Looks Into Online Mail Service

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A proposed online mailing service from the U.S. Postal Service that is intended to help small businesses may run into some opposition.


The USPS asked the Postal Rate Commission last month to authorize testing of Mailing Online, but Barry Brennan, director of postal affairs at the Mail Advertising Service Association, Alexandria, VA, said some members of his organization are concerned that it would compete with services they offer. Postal officials said Mailing Online is explicitly for very small projects and for small business that are just entering relationships with the USPS.


"If their businesses grow as a result of continuing to use the mail, their mail volumes will grow and they will graduate from Mailing Online and become larger mailers that will use the services of professional lettershops regularly," said Lee Garvey, program manager of Mailing Online.


The service would allow small businesses with 20 or fewer employees to automate mailings from their personal computers. Small businesses would transmit documents electronically to the USPS. The documents then are routed electronically to USPS-approved printing contractors who print, stuff and address mail to customer-furnished mailing lists. The printer then drops the completed mailings to the USPS for delivery.


In its filing with the PRC, the postal service asked for a market test to take place in the Philadelphia-New York-Boston corridor for three months beginning Sep. 1. In addition, the USPS requested an experimental filing to begin in January to offer the service for two years -- at first within this Northeast corridor but adding vendors in other locations as demand grows. At the end of the two years, it would expect to have met its goal of 25 nationwide print sites.


Mailing Online is part of Post Office Online, an initiative to assist small businesses nationwide with online mailing. The system has another component, Shipping Online, which lets small businesses send mail, print Express Mail and Priority Mail labels, track packages, confirm Priority Mail deliveries, order supplies and schedule pickups online.


More than 50 customers are testing Post Office Online in Tampa, FL, and Hartford, CT. Some are using both Shipping and Mailing Online, others just Mailing Online. The USPS is committed to these areas until Sept. 1, however, Garvey said, "we will continue to offer the service to the pilot test users to continue to get their feedback."


The USPS chose the Philadelphia-New York-Boston corridor for the market test because after looking at research it "found that the Northeast is a hotbed of small offices and home offices -- the kind of organizations or workers we are looking for with Post Office Online."


Currently, there is only one vendor under a contractual agreement to provide the mailing services; the USPS, however, is actively seeking partners for the test corridor. Postal officials said Mailing Online will enhance the capabilities of individuals and small businesses to enter First-Class and Standard A Mail into the mainstream and provide them with an easier way to access the mail.


"Small businesses and home offices have neither the time nor the resources to devote to experts or a team of experts who spend a great deal of their time involved in the mail, learning about it and keeping up with it," Garvey said. "In some ways, the smaller the business, the more difficult it is for them to use mail, but Mailing Online will help them to use the mail more."


While pricing will be finalized by the PRC, the USPS is proposing charging users a postage fee and a production fee.


"Since [Mailing Online] involves rates, eventually, this will end up in the PRC, so we were best off proceeding along the lines of getting their cooperation and building this from the ground up," Garvey said.


This case is similar to other rate-case decisions. The PRC reviews the information and makes its recommendation. If the USPS is satisfied with the results from the experimental offering, it then would go back to the PRC for a review and recommendation to implement the process on a permanent basis. Unlike other decisions, the USPS asked the PRC to expedite its recommendation and give its answer by the end of November because officials want to explore having software developers integrate Mailing Online into software updates.
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