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Guide to New United States Postal Service Regulations

To the surprise of many in the replication, packaging, and fulfillment industries, the United States Postal Service changed the specifications that define what is considered a letter.

The rules changed.

On May 14, 2007, the price of first class letter postage went from $0.39 to $0.41. Many companies were dismayed to learn the price of a stamp was not the only thing that changed. To the surprise of many in the replication, packaging, and fulfillment industries, the USPS changed the specifications that define what is considered a letter.

For years the most cost-effective way to send large shipments of CDs and DVDs through the mail stream directly to the end-user was a 5" x 5 ¼" paperboard sleeve. The weight of a disc sent in one of these sleeves was less than 1 ounce. Consequently, it was classified as a letter by the USPS with postage for sending them bulk or first class pre-sort costing as little as $0.22 a unit. As of May 14, however, this same package was re-classified as a parcel or a flat, and the cost to mail them bulk or otherwise rose as much as threefold in some instances. Why? The cost to mail a parcel or flat exceeds the cost to mail a letter. When the parameters defining a letter changed, everything changed.

Why did this happen?

A major reason why postcards and letters are more cost effective to mail is that the USPS can automate the process. For years the Postal Service only charged the letter rate for many packages that were not compatible with their automated equipment. Since May 14, however, the game has changed, making the selection of an experienced replication, printing, and fulfillment company able to navigate the complexity of the new U.S. Postal Regulations absolutely critical.

The new definitions of Postcards, Letters, Parcels, and Packages.

In a nutshell, postcards cost less to mail than letters, letters cost less than parcels, and parcels cost less than packages. The trick is to identify the most cost effective category for your project's business needs (see Project Management article), then send it within that category in the most cost effective way possible.

  • Postcard
    Length between 5 inches and 6 inches
    Height between 3 ½ inches and 4 ¼ inches
    Thickness between .007 inch and .0016 inch
  • Letter
    Length between 5 inches and 11 1/2 inches
    Height between 3 ½ inches and 6 1/8 inches
    Thickness between .007 inch and .1/4 inch
  • Parcel
    Length between 11 1/2 inches and 15 inches
    Height between 6 1/8 inches and 12 inches
    Thickness between 1/4 inch and 3/4 inch
  • Packages
    Length plus girth cannot exceed 108 inches
    The length is defined as the longest side of the package
    The girth is defined as the measurement around the thickest part (Perpendicular to the length)

How to Pay Less Postage

The first priority is to find a company with experience using the mail stream. Next, confirm your shipment meets the definition of a letter. If it does not, make sure it will go out as a parcel rather than a package. Once the project category is determined, the goal becomesmailing it for the lowest cost within that category. A postcard is a postcard so it is immediately apparent if your project fits into that category. Anything containing a CD or DVD will never get the postcard rate.

The key to getting the lowest postage rate is to ensure the package can run through the USPS automated mailing equipment. The two major factors that determine whether a project is deemed "machinable" are the use of shrink wrap and the package's aspect ratio.

Shrink-wrap does not work with automated mailing equipment. Your package must be closed using wafer seals, tabs, or glue strips. In addition, the use of these closing options can also effect if your package is machinable. Consult your replication, printing, and fulfillment expert for guidance on closing your package to meet postal machinable requirements.

The aspect ratio of a letter cannot be less than 1:3 or more than 2:5. As a result, the 5 x 5 ¼ inch packages that previously received the machinable letter rate no longer qualify. The minimum dimensions must now be at least 5 x 6.5 inches.

First Class mail must weigh 1 ounce or less and Standard Mail must weigh 3.3 ounces or less.

A list of additional criteria used to determine whether a letter or parcel fits within the USPS automated mailing equipment parameters is below. If it does not meet these requirements, each package mailed could receive a surcharge of $0.17 per unit!

A letter-size mail piece is not machinable if it fails to meet any of these characteristics:

  1. The weight exceeds 3.3 ounces (unless prepared as an automation rate letter).
  2. The aspect ratio is between 1:3 and 2:5.
  3. The package is not shrink-wrapped, poly-wrapped, or enclosed in any plastic material.
  4. The package has clasps, strings, buttons, or similar closure devices.
  5. It must bend easily when subjected to a transport belt tension of 40 pounds around and 11-inch diameter turn (to test, see if it bends at least an inch when bent over the side of a table).
  6. For pieces more than 4 ¼ inches high or less than 6 inches long, the thickness must be more than .009 of an inch.

Once you've met all the parameters of the USPS automated mailing equipment are you out of the woods and eligible for the lowest postal rate possible for your project? I wish that were the case.

There are more considerations involved in obtaining the best rate. Of considerable importance is meeting the strict parameters regarding length and delivery address orientation . There is an additional factor known as the Barcode Clear Zone. If your barcode appears in a window. make certain it passes the "tap" test. Furthermore, the placement of the package's leading edge can determine if it meets regulations. Finally, keep in mind, only 229 colors are readable by the USPS equipment.

Even if you've figured this all out, each major postal annex has someone called a Mail Piece Design Analyst who makes the determination of which category your project fits into and whether your project is considered machinable. It is up to each USPS Mail Piece Design Analyst to interpret the new regulations, and it's possible that the USPS office in your area has a different interpretation of the rules than other areas.

Confused enough? There is one final consideration. Even if you have followed all the USPS' rules to get your letter rate, you've been approved for the machinable rate and been spared the $0.17 surcharge, there is no guarantee your package will make it through the USPS automated mailing equipment undamaged. If your replication, printing, and fulfillment company cannot guarantee that your cool packaging concept will make it safely through USPS mailing equipment, they should consider sending package samples to the USPS Division of Rates and Classification for testing in their automated mailing equipment.

The key to navigating the postal regulation changes is to work with experienced experts. For help in getting your message safely to your end-user for the lowest postal rate possible and in pristine condition, contact Advanced Digital Replication, Inc.

R. Harvey Bravman

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