Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Fewer trips to the Post Office

My family loves to go to the Post Office. Not only are the postal workers friendly, but they’re always helpful and kid-friendly. Unless I stop and gab, we’re usually in and out in a few minutes.

But I don’t always have time to get to the post office to weigh a package, obtain the correct postage and generally get the package on its way. Furthermore, I’m also terrible at keeping a chart that tells me the cost of postage.

So off to the Post Office I go every so often. But what if visits to the Post Office didn’t have to happen so frequently?

Of course there’s FedEx and UPS that can ship packages for you, but sometimes just a fat envelope may not warrant one of those carriers.

So I started exploring to see how postal services have changed. The two biggest services are Stamps.com (www.stamps.com) and Endicia (www.endicia.com).

Stamps.com provides a single service for $19.95 per month that seems pretty comprehensive for small businesses. What intrigued me the most is the variety of postage and labeling options available. This includes printing not only stamps, but also shipping labels, doing mail-merges, printing directly on to envelopes and more.

Endicia offers a broader array of services, including a free service (no monthly fee, but you still have to pay for postage and consumables, specifically labels). Their services quickly move up the fee scale, starting at $9.95 per month to $99.95 per month and offer a variety of features, such as return shipping labels, business reply mail and links to UPS and FedEx.

Each company has tried to match their service to specific market segments, but is targeting people who have postage meters in their offices. And both companies succeed quite nicely.

Both services allow a digital scale to be attached to your computer and some software that looks at the destination address, calculates the appropriate postage and prints the label. This feature is attractive and works well.

In both cases, there are special labels that must be purchased to accommodate the postage software. In most instances, this can add $0.07 or more to the cost of a shipment. If you’re sending out hundreds of letters, this can add up. However, if you’re sending out a few packages a day, this premium is reasonable.

These labels are typically run through a laser, inkjet or even one of the thermal label printers such as from Dymo or Brother.

In looking at both services, I found that as a typical home user, only the free service from Endicia would be attractive, but only a bit. It lets you print postage, but not weigh packages and do some of the other items that I consider a basic necessity. Given the small volume of things I send, I’m unwilling to pay a monthly fee to have the ability to weigh and send packages from my home.

If I were running a small business in my home, either service would be worth looking into. For offices that have considered a postage meter, but may not want to get tied into the contracts that are typically required, these services also offer a nice alternative.

Of surprising note is that the United States Postal Service (USPS) offers some of the same services for free from its Web site at www.usps.com. At the USPS Web site, you can print labels and postage with no monthly fee and with no premium payment.

The Postal Service has done a very nice job at putting their business online.

Finally, U.S. postal rates went up on May 11. They could go up again in the future so buy some extra “Forever Stamps” at the Post Office (or online at USPS.com) and save yourself a few pennies for every letter you mail.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 13 May 2009.