Despite e-mail, the Web, fax machines and overnight delivery services, the U.S. Postal Service delivered more than 180 billion pieces of mail in 1996--about 421 pieces for each American. Postal mail--or "snail mail" as we techies call it--remains one of the most viable means of communication for small businesses. It's the way most businesses send and pay bills, and it's still a great way to market and deliver products to your customers.
The Postal Service has been issuing postage stamps since Benjamin Franklin was appointed postmaster in 1775. The technology of stamps hasn't changed much throughout the years other than the fact that you no longer have to lick them. In 1920, Arthur Pitney invented the postage meter and, along with Walter Bowes, created a more automated way to affix postage to U.S. mail. Pitney Bowes today makes 86% of the postage meters used in the United States.
The company offers a complete line of postage meters, all of which must be rented. It is illegal to own your own postage meter in the U.S. One meter that's useful for many small and home-based businesses is the Personal Post Office, which has a built-in modem that allows you to purchase postage online without having to go to the post office. The meter can handle small and large envelopes and prints a pressure-sensitive meter tape for packages and can affix postage to 10 envelopes per minute. Postage can be set for any amount from 1 cent to $99.99.
The meter costs $19.95 a month to rent and comes with four free refills a year. Additional refills are $5 each. It holds up to $1,000 worth of postage. If you do get a postage meter, be sure you have an accurate postal scale. The company is currently offering a free 90-day trial for anyone who wants to check out the meter.
The Personal Post Office comes with a CD-ROM designed to help businesses develop effective direct-mail campaigns. It includes tools to help you analyze the potential costs and benefits of a direct-mail campaign as well as design tips and information on purchasing mailing lists. The company is also offering its DirectNET service that will print, assemble, address and mail advertising pieces that you design on a PC using your own word processing or publishing software.
The biggest change for Pitney Bowes will come in a few months when the Postal Service will start letting individuals and businesses print their own postage using a standard inkjet or laser printer. No, it's not a way to get free postage. The system, called the Information Based Indicia Program (IDIP), will allow people to purchase postage online and then print that postage directly onto mailing pieces or labels. Indicia is an electronic stamp or mark that proves that you have paid for your postage.
The service is, of course, regulated by the Postal Service, which has contracted with private companies to distribute the electronic stamps, or indicia.
Pitney Bowes is one of several companies that will start offering a beta test program this spring for PC owners who want to print their own postage. Other likely players include E-Stamp (http://www.estamp.com) StampMaster (http://www.stampmaster.com), Neopost (http://www.pcstamp.com) and Postage Plus (http://www.postageplus.com).
E-Stamp, according to Chief Executive Sunir K. Kapoor, is developing software that will let you affix postage automatically from Microsoft Word and other Windows application programs.
Most vendors plan to require users to plug a small device into the PC's printer port that stores the postage that has been purchased. StampMaster plans to use a software-only solution that requires users to log onto the Internet each time they wish to print indicia. None of the companies has announced how much it will charge for the service, but spokesmen for each said pricing would be designed to be affordable for small businesses and home offices. One executive speculated it would probably be about $10 a month. Another said they were considering charging about 10% above the face value of the postage.
However it's done, users will print the indicia directly onto the envelope or label as they print the address. To prevent fraud, the indicium is linked to both the return and delivery address of each mailing, which can be verified by the Postal Service's scanning devices. Anyone wishing to participate in these companies' beta test programs should visit their Web sites for information.
However you buy your postage, be sure to visit the Postal Service Web site (http://www.usps.gov) for information on rates and services. Click on "business" for special information, including what you need to know to sell to the USPS. You'll also find an Express Mail tracking service and a ZIP Code look-up database.
United Parcel Service (http://www.ups.com), Federal Express (http://www.fedex.com) and Airborne Express (http://www.airborne-express.com) all have Web sites that offer package tracking information, rate calculation and other services. Federal Express lets you arrange a pickup via its Web site and offers free software that automatically prepares your air bills. UPS offers its Online Office software that prints address labels, calculates rates, provide electronic package tracking and more.
And, just because people are now using the Internet to ship documents doesn't mean there's no role for package delivery services. UPS recently announced its Online Dossier and Courier services, which will provide secure, encrypted online document transmission with tracking and receipt verification. About the only thing you don't get is a brown truck in front of your door.
Lawrence J. Magid can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com