From the Tech Vault Dept.: I had a brief run of tech-oriented articles in Metroland magazine, Albany’s alt-weekly for which I wrote for some three decades, and this is one such piece. Over the twenty years since it was published, the technology has changed – but not much. At least at my end. I’m still using stamps.com, still getting postage out of a Dymo printer, but it sure isn’t costing 34 cents for a first-class letter. And thanks to the reign of Louis DeJoy, a once-efficient postal service now struggles.
COMPUTER CONVENIENCES have come into their own with the Internet as a driving force. Online buying made the news over the holidays, but it goes well beyond that with online research, online entertainment and such online oddities as recovering lost money, paying bills, managing group projects – even buying checks and tracking bank and credit card accounts.
The most economical way to purchase that postage is over the counter (or from a machine) at a post office or other stamps-friendly outlet (friendly means not slapping a surcharge on the sale). The most convenient way is with a postage meter, but they’re expensive. You have to rent the meter, buy postage, and have the meter reset at the post office.
At my house, there are bills to be paid (we’re not entirely electronic in that department), correspondences to be maintained and flyers and cards to be sent out when the occasion demands. As a freelancer, I’m always sending out queries and resumes. And I rarely have the needed postage on hand. I’ve put together a combination of label printer and PC Postage account. It’s a little more expensive than buying stamps, but it evens out by saving me trips to the post office.
After lots of pressure from some inventive Internet entrepreneurs, the USPS created the new category of PC Postage. One requirement of buying this type of postage is that you have to check that your destination is a valid address. This can be done online, through a specially configured database, or offline, with USPS-approved CD-ROMs. The biggest supplier of PC Postage is at www.stamps.com, which does online address checking and, unfortunately, reminds us how little the USPS cares for the elegance of language. You can’t spell out “street” or “suite” or “floor.” Addresses you’ve used for years turn out to have some detail off kilter, enough so that you have to fuss over it until it’s acceptable to the database. Heaven help you if you’re in a rural area with Star Route-type addresses. These efforts by the USPS to streamline its service are introducing a new level of sub-literacy.
Stamps.com charges a fee of ten percent of the postage you use, with a $2-per-month minimum; e-stamp.com charges ten percent of the postage you buy, with a $5 minimum and $25 maximum.
You can feed envelopes through your laser or ink-jet printer and have the postage printed directly thereon. An added advantage is that the address is also printed – the two have to be printed together in any PC Postage-based application. My laser printer causes the flap of my cheap envelopes to stick shut, and I wanted the flexibility of package addressing, so I use a special label printer.
Dymo has the market cornered in that realm; their LabelWriters are small and easy to use and plug into your computer’s serial or USB port. You can easily switch among different label types, although I generally keep it stocked with the special, day-glo postage labels that are required. There’s a wide variety in label pricing, so it’ll pay to shop around, especially online. Use the price comparison feature at www.cnet.com.
You have a choice of two- or three-part labels. The latter give you an extra label for the return address, which is useless if you have pre-printed envelopes. Nevertheless, the USPS requires that PC Postage intended for Priority Mail must have that return address, so the software now won’t let you print to a two-part form. Once again, the government has decided we’re not to be trusted with a simple task – in this case, adding a return address – and found a sneaky way to impose its will.
The combo of LabelWriter and stamps.com account not only gives me incredible postage-printing convenience – it also tracks what I send, saves the addresses (if I ask it to) and helps me set up a database of those addresses for mass mailings and the like.
There are some constraints. When you’re getting started, you have to wait for a meter license. It’s a pretty quick process, however. Postage is date specific, and the post office gets cranky if you wait a day or two to mail what you’ve printed. Also, you’re expected to drop most of your mail in a box near your nearest post office. You can leave it in your mailbox, of course, but don’t drop your PC Postaged mail in the post office’s regular letterbox. Look for the metered mail slot, or hand it to a clerk.
Pitney-Bowes, the postage meter giant, isn’t about to be left out. Meters are still a flourishing business for them, but they’ve entered the PC Postage realm with a service called ClickStamp (www.pitneyworks.com). Other, similar services are EZMail (www.simplypostage.com) and PCMail (www.pcstamp.com).
And don’t think the USPS is being left out. While they haven’t yet entered the PC Postage realm, their website sports some innovative service options, the most appealing of which is NetPost Mailing Online (MOL). This allows you to upload a document created in any of a number of popular page layout programs (Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, PageMaker, QuarkXPress and the like), upload a mailing list (the popular spreadsheets and databases are recognized), and instruct the MOL service to combine the two and do your mass mailing. You can even send a merge document with your mailing list and let the service combine them, which is handy for invoice delivery.
Documents are returned in Acrobat format for your proofreading convenience. Your product can be a letter (up to legal size), booklet or newsletter, and you even a choice of binding options if that’s required. For more design impact, you can include highlight colors in your document. Naturally, the addresses you supply will be checked against that “good address” database, and you get to correct the questionable destinations. You can prepare and submit a mailing up to a month in advance.
It’s not a bad rate, either. Although pricing depends on a variety of factors, a two-page document on standard paper, stapled, placed in an addressed envelope and First Class mailed would cost about 40 cents per piece.
We may never see correspondence on the order of Clarissa, that nine-volume 18th-century novel made up of lengthy letters, but at least those letters we do write stand an excellent chance of getting where they need to go with postage and address in a form that the post office, at least, can’t complain about.
– Metroland Magazine, 25 January 2001