USPS testing new standards for 'slim jim' catalogs

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The U.S. Postal Service is preparing to test new standards around letter-size booklets, also known as "slim jim" catalogs. As more catalogers may switch to the lower-priced format in light of the current rate increase, the agency fears these slim jims may jam the agency's delivery bar code sorters.

The USPS, as a result, is cautioning catalogers who may be considering switching to a slim-jim format to put those plans on hold until the standards are set.

"We are just anticipating an influx of these types of catalogs [after the rates increase]," said Barry Walsh, operations specialist at the USPS, who spoke at a teleconference between the agency and mailers about this issue earlier this month.

"But from what I understand, some mailers have already invested in the redesign of their graphical layouts and are already thinking about how they would redo their catalogs if they went to a smaller format," he said. "We just want to get in here with any changes that we have to make before people invest any more money."

Slim jims measure 6.125 inches by 11.5 inches. The USPS considers them folded self-mailers and booklets. If they weigh 3 ounces or less and are tabbed, they are the largest size qualifying for letter-rate postage, which is significantly lower than recently increased Standard Mail flats postage.

Under the postal rates that go into effect today, mailers could save about 10 cents per book in postage by switching from a Standard Mail flat size that weighs less than 3 ounces.

Slim jims also could be mailed under the Heavy Letter subclass, which includes catalogs weighing more than 3 ounces and up to 3.5 ounces that are placed in envelopes. This subclass of mail qualifies for a hybrid rate that is still significantly below the rates for Standard Mail flats.

Some mailers question whether or not the change could affect response rates negatively.

"That is a big concern - a big, big, big concern," said Don Landis, vice president of postal affairs at Arandell Corp., Menomonee Falls, WI. "There have been those that have tested and have had huge decreases, and there have been those that have tested and they found that it didn't affect anything. The key point here is test before you leap."

The USPS has said there are not many slim jims in the systems now, and when they do appear in USPS facilities, postal employees will put them through the more robust AFSM-100 flats sorter as opposed to the delivery bar code sorters, which handle letter mail. However, to get the lower rates, they will have to be able to go through the delivery bar code sorter machine.

"Many, if not most or all, slim jims are entered as Standard letters [yet] processed on the AFSM-100 flats sorter instead of the delivery bar code letter sorters due to processing problems on them," Mr. Walsh said during the conference call. "To ensure that DMM [Domestic Mail Manual] requirements will produce slim jims that run acceptably on the delivery barcode sorters, engineering plans controlled tests of a wide variety of slim jims to determine required standards for booklets."

During the call, USPS and mailers discussed whether features such as weight, size and tab positioning on the mail pieces will have to change as a result of being able to run on the DBCS machine.

Mr. Landis is thinking about the standards with some concern.

For example, even though mailers may be able to get a lower rate, they will have to spend a lot of money to make their mail pieces meet the specifications.

"Some slim jims were causing the letter sorters to jam," Mr. Landis said. "However, some slim jims sorted just fine. I think there are going to be some major changes to the specifications of a slim jim that will make it cost-prohibitive to mail a slim jim."

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