USPS Adds More MERLINs, But the Magic Eludes Mailers

The U.S. Postal Service's Board of Governors has approved funding for the second installation phase of 1,003 MERLIN systems despite earlier problems and a negative reaction from the mailing community.

MERLIN, Mail Evaluation Readability and Lookup Instrument, is designed to verify all acceptance requirements at automation speeds to reduce acceptance time. It also is designed to help ensure that the proper revenue is collected and minimize the amount of improperly prepared mail in distribution, the USPS said. It will give feedback to customers to help them improve their mail preparation and qualify for discounts.

In July, the MERLIN system detected many barcode errors, potentially adding postage penalties that mailers could pass along to the companies doing the mailings. Prompted by complaints, the USPS added 60 days from the time the machines were deployed before mailers were assessed additional postage for barcode problems.

Earlier this month, the USPS released new software for the MERLIN machines. Currently, a 60-day phase-in has begun during which no additional postage will be levied relating to barcode quality.

Though mailers said there has been an improvement to the new system, concerns remain about MERLIN in general. Some even question the need for the system.

“There really isn't that much mail in the reject bin to start with, so why did the postal service need to spend all those millions of dollars for MERLIN?” said Jerry Ling, president of the Southeastern Mailers Association Inc., Atlanta. “This is a typical thing where the postal service is spending millions of dollars trying to find somebody who is cheating them out of thousands of dollars.”

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 be able to 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.

Under the first phase of the program, 200 machines were sent to the Southeast and Southwest. Specifically, the USPS began deploying MERLINs across the Southeast in July, starting in Tampa, FL. 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 second phase will provide nationwide coverage in the remaining areas. All machines will be in place by August 2003.

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