Brief: Postage is a significant expense for most companies, but you can reduce mailing costs. The postal service offers discount rates for envelopes which contain the POSTNET barcode. This article shows you how to use POSTNET barcodes to maximize postal savings for your organization.
In the last several barcode articles, we've been building an understanding of barcode printing on the AS/400. This article focuses on the use of a particular type of barcode: POSTNET.
The U.S. Postal Service developed the Postal Numeric Encoding Technique (POSTNET) for encoding zip code information on letter mail. POSTNET began in 1976, when the U.S. Postmaster General determined that all letters and noncarrier-route flat mail would be machine routed by 1995. To accomplish this goal, a system of automation was designed which allows machines to read zip codes and direct the mail at extremely high speeds. The POSTNET barcode was the result of this plan. The small vertical bars, which began appearing on the bottom of envelopes during the 1980s, heralded the arrival of the POSTNET system.
POSTNET is a barcode, similar to UPC and Code 3-of-9. But it's a "barcode with an attitude!" To be effective, it must be able to navigate through the postal service's sorters and routers.
POSTNET utilizes redundant information within a compact barcode format to provide error detection and a significant degree of error correction. It has specific format and positioning requirements. All of this is required because the POSTNET barcode must be reliably read and decoded at high speeds by optical reading systems. Although companies might tolerate the mistakes that can occur in other barcoding environments, no one will tolerate an error-prone system for the U.S. Postal Service.
POSTNET is intricately involved in the way people address company mail. Implementing POSTNET may require custom programming to translate your mailing list into a POSTNET-compatible database.
When the U.S. Postmaster General decided to route mail by machine, the automatic routing of all letters by 1995 was an extremely aggressive goal. To encourage postal customers to presort and barcode their mail with a POSTNET barcode, the postal service established discount rates for first-class and third-class flat mail. These discounts have been the driving force behind POSTNET acceptance. Business enterprises embrace POSTNET as an integral part of their information system strategy because it saves them money.
If your organization generates large mailings, postal discounts can add up quickly. When mail is "automation-compatible," savings can be as high as 23 percent on each first-class letter mailed and 26 percent on each third-class letter.
Let's take the simple example of an organization that wants to make a product announcement to potential customers. The organization might plan to send a first-class letter announcing the new product. Marketing determines that, in order to impact the marketplace, this letter must reach at least 10,000 individuals. At 29 cents per letter, the cost of postage alone will be $2,900- a steep price. If the organization is young, this cost might represent a substantial investment.
This same mailing, presorted and coded with POSTNET, would cost the company only $2,330. This savings of $570 may not seem much in the grand scheme of things; but if the company plans to do four mailings in a single year, this same communication could reach an extra 1,965 potential customers at each mailing, or an additional 7,860 customers during the year. In other words, the total savings using POSTNET barcodes could actually fund a fifth marketing communication.
Steps for Implementing POSTNET
Often it's difficult to parlay the potential savings of POSTNET into an action plan within an organization. The needs of individual departments within an organization make it difficult to coordinate a successful POSTNET mailing environment.
The Billing department, for in-stance, probably doesn't coordinate its mailings with the Accounts Payable department; the Marketing department may use outside resources to stuff and address its envelopes. Each department's mailings may seem relatively small, until they're all placed end to end in a budget. Then, suddenly, the numbers begin to add up.
Consequently, the key to successful POSTNET implementation within an organization is not merely the technology, but orchestrating the organization to think responsibly about its use of the postal service and pooling resources into a consistent program to cut costs. Here's a three-step blueprint for introducing POSTNET barcodes within your organization. You may have already completed step one or two, or your company may be so large that step two isn't vital. In any case, this list provides a guideline for your development plan.
1. Create shared mailing lists, using the integrated database capabilities of the AS/400.
2. Schedule mailings to maximize the volume of mail being coded.
3. Print the POSTNET barcode on envelopes.
1. Changing the database
How many different mailing databases can one organization have? Count the number of Rolodexes on people's desks, and you'll start to know the answer. To centralize any mailing list, you must anticipate how the various departments will use it and adequately categorize the recipients for their appropriate mailing.
The AS/400's relational database is an excellent tool to accomplish this goal. By developing a generic name and address format and providing clear categories, the AS/400's database is easily modified as new requirements present themselves. An additional benefit may be more accurate and consistent address information for all your applications. End users can use the query tools available on the system to retrieve information about particular correspondents.
If your current application backlog prevents you from considering the re- engineering of your mailing lists and master files, the postal service maintains a list of POSTNET-certified software packages through its Coding Accuracy Support System (CASS). These packages can catapult your organization past the technical problems of re-creating the underlying data.
2. Scheduling mailings
Scheduling work loads for maximum efficiency can be a politically sensitive topic within any organization. Departments may perceive the centralization of mailings as a limitation. As a result, the introduction of POSTNET barcodes as a strategic project for your company requires coordination from your management.
Fortunately, the AS/400 provides you with good facilities to manage limited printer resources and output from jobs. You can treat large, centralized mailings as any other batch job, hold the output in specialized output queues and then dedicate the appropriate printer at a specific time to maximize throughput. This technique, using the resources of the AS/400, can actually decrease the time the various departments require to get their work accomplished. With a little observation and fine-tuning of your coordinated schedules, large mailings can be exceedingly efficient, while creating little or no impact on your overall resources.
3. Printing the Barcode
The technical requirements for placing POSTNET barcodes on mailings involve some understanding of the barcode's robust structure. An analysis of a POSTNET barcode shows that its structure starts as simple representations of numbers and builds into a model of formats and functions.
POSTNET handles three different formats of zip code representations: the original five-digit zip, the nine-digit zip + 4, and the latest 11-digit zip + 4 Delivery Point Barcode.
Each of these formats is structured in the same manner: the POSTNET barcode begins with a single framing bar, followed by the particular format, followed by a correction-character check digit and ending with a final framing bar.
Each digit is represented by five bits so the barcode can get quite long. For instance, the original five-digit zip code represented in POSTNET barcode is 32 bars, (1 frame bar, 25 bars representing the five-digit zip, 5 correction character bars, and 1 final frame bar) and is referred to by the postal service as the "A Field." For a detailed explanation of the structure of a POSTNET barcode, see the accompanying sidebar. Since many databases still haven't added the four extra digits to the zip code, the chances are that many of your mailings will be composed of this 32-bar POSTNET code.
The zip + 4 POSTNET barcode adds four more digits, or 20 more bars, to the A Field. Until last year, this 52-bar POSTNET barcode was enough to qualify for the discounts. As of March 1993, the postal service has changed the requirements to qualify for the discounts. Probably the most confusing is the Delivery Point Barcode, which is the latest addition to the traditional zip.
As we've said, POSTNET was originally designed to represent the nine-digit zip + 4 code; but its application has been steadily evolving. Today, in order to qualify for the postal discounts, your POSTNET barcode must also include the Delivery Point Barcode (DPBC).
The DPBC adds two more digits to the standard zip + 4. These two digits represent the last two numbers of the residential address. (Such as "59" in the address "1159 Main Street.")
The DPBC allows the postal service to presort the actual route of the mailman, just as an automated packing list allows an inventory control clerk to maximize his efficiency on the warehouse floor.
Some exceptional circumstances in most mailing databases can make the DPBC cumbersome to implement. Many of these exceptions don't become apparent until there's an attempt to generate DPBCs. For instance, how many different ways can someone write the residential address 1 Main Street? There's One Main Street, #1 Main Street and Main Street #1, to name a few. Each of these exceptions has to be parsed and massaged into the DPBC.
At the opposite extreme, what if you don't even have the zip code? If there's no information about the zip with an address, then the POSTNET barcode requires you to put in the Postal Services Sectional Center Facility and the Postal Zone where this facility resides. Sectional Center Facilities (SCFs) are the sorting and routing locations nearest the destination of the mailing. You can obtain a list of these facilities from the postal service, and you will need to incorporate the SCF into your database's editing process.
The postal service provides a complete guide to its expectations, but it will be up to your programming staff to determine the means by which this transformation will be accomplished.
Besides the mechanics of printing the code onto mail, POSTNET has a series of requirements which must be fulfilled in order for your mail to navigate the automated sorters and readers of the postal service. In other words, POSTNET is not just a barcode, but an integrated system designed by the post office to route mail.
Placement of POSTNET codes
Originally, the POSTNET code location was confined to the lower, right corner of mail. The U.S. Postal Service is now using a more advanced Wide Area Barcode Reader (WABCR) which scans a wide band across the length of the mail. The WABCR can locate and read barcodes in either the address block or in the lower, right corner.
Even with this new equipment, the placement of the code, the size, weight and thickness of the "mailpiece" and the aspect ratio are important elements of the POSTNET system. Letters processed by high-speed equipment have to move through a series of belts and rollers that pass beneath the optical scanner before being routed to an appropriate bin. If the mailpiece falls outside the parameters of size, weight or aspect ratio, the letters may tumble and jam in the machinery. Consequently, these dimensions remain critical to the successful use of POSTNET.
A piece of mail must meet certain size requirements before it is considered acceptable in the POSTNET system. Pieces which are either too small or too large in terms of height, length and thickness may not be accepted.
You can obtain an entire list of specifications from the postal service. This list can be an eye-opener, letting you measure how your organization uses the postal service and allowing you to maximize the effectiveness of its services.
The final technical requirement is the development of the POSTNET correction character. The correction character is a check digit to ensure that the scanning and routing machinery has appropriately read the barcode. If you use the DDS keyword, BARCODE, to print your barcodes, the correction character is generated automatically.
If you need to calculate the check digit, simply add up all the barcode digits. The check digit is the number that rounds the sum of the other digits to the next highest multiple of 10. For example, Midrange Computing's 11-digit POSTNET code is 92008-7128-50. The sum of the digits is 42, which yields a check digit of 8.
While all the preceding requirements may seem daunting, the actual printing of the POSTNET barcode can be as simple as using the BARCODE keyword in your printer file DDS. If you have an IPDS printer which is capable of handling the Advanced Function Printing Data Stream, the placement and positioning of the POSTNET barcode is accomplished with the POSITION keyword.
The previous barcode articles have furnished examples of using the BARCODE keyword and have provided a description of Advanced Function Printing Utilities/400, which can help you put the actual code in place. If your organization doesn't have an IPDS printer, you can use a PC-attached printer with the PCL5 programming language, as explained this month in MC's "Creating Barcodes on a Budget."
Regardless of the hardware you use, however, you'll want to test and validate your hardware's capabilities before you send reams of envelopes through the printing process.
The Coding Accuracy Support System (CASS) tests and certifies the accuracy of POSTNET compatibility of mailing software and hardware. CASS provides a list of hardware and software vendors who have been POSTNET-certified. This can be a particularly useful service if you intend to buy new equipment.
If you choose to develop your own POSTNET application in-house, contact CASS to get your application certified. Generally, CASS requests samples of your output, checks to ensure that the formats are correctly used and verifies that your hardware is appropriately calibrated. One of the problems you could encounter is skew. Skew occurs when the position of the POSTNET barcode falls out of alignment with the edges of the mailpiece.
The Bottom Line
POSTNET is a low-risk barcode application that's waiting for you and your organization. It has all the hallmarks of built-in success, and the potential to save your company money. How you choose to implement the process-using custom software or purchasing packaged solutions-depends upon your unique environment and the backlog of applications which await you. Yet, most organizations realize quickly that the cost of implementing POSTNET is recouped with each mailing.
T.M. Stockwell is an associate technical editor for Midrange Computing.
REFERENCES For more information about postal regulations, you should contact the automation specialist or account specialist at your local post office. In addition, you can ask for these free publications: A Guide to Business Mail Preparation: Publication number 25 Automation Plan for Business Mailers: Publication number 65 Postal Addressing Standards: Pub-lication number 28