USPS to sunset POSTNET mail tracking system by January

The US Postal Service is now phasing out its old POSTNET barcode system, as it prepares to make its new Intelligent Mail barcode (IMb) tracking system standard across its network. The move was formally proposed in the Federal Register today, after mailers were informed last month that automation letters and flats will need to be using the basic IMb system from January 2013 to qualify for discounts.

From the following year, the requirement will be raised for mailers to be on the IMb “Full Service” system to secure mail discounts.

The phase-out of POSTNET covers automation mail including Business Reply Mail letters that qualify for Qualified Business Reply Mail prices and Permit Reply Mail letters, and also applies to some parcels, though not those using the POSTNET code within address blocks, according to USPS.

The IMb Full Service option offers mailers access to a greater level of visibility and discounts than the Basic option, but requires barcodes to be unique to each mailpiece.

Various additional benefits are currently in development at USPS to further enhance the value of IMb Full Service, including the elimination of permit fees and new easier payment options.

USPS said wider use of its IMb system should also reduce processing costs by increasing barcode recognition rates, helping to keep down postage rates.

Jim Cochrane, the USPS vice president of product information, told Post&Parcel: “We are beginning to provide the incentives to get people to move into Full Service, and by January of 2014 there will be a requirement to be in a Full Service environment – because we believe the power of this technology is too important for mailers to miss.”

IMb

The IMb system combines the data contained within the old POSTNET and PLANET Code systems. Its barcode includes information like the mailer ID number and service type identifier for a mailpiece, along with information like zip code and household sequence number.

As well as allowing detailed tracking for mailpieces, it allows participation in multiple USPS service programmes or promotions without the need for mailpieces to be cluttered by multiple barcodes.

Currently the Postal Service has 629 customers using the IMb Full Service barcodes, with more than 1.9bn First Class Mail items and 1.4bn Standard Mail items measured using the barcodes in the first 48 days of 2012.

The deadline for mailers to start using the IMb barcodes was extended last year, after Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe decided too many mailers were not going to meet the original May 2011 switchover deadline.

The proposal to phase out POSTNET by January 2013 is now subject to a comment period until April, with USPS telling Post&Parcel that they are encouraging mailers to come forward with their views on the move.

USPS said today: “The Postal Service understands that many mailers currently use POSTNET barcodes. We are committed to working with individual mailers and software providers to ensure that the use of an Intelligent Mail barcode is achievable for all mailing customers.”

Visibility

Through the IMb system, the Postal Service is now developing an intricate system of diagnostic tools that can analyse its mail processing chain down to an impressive level of detail to check on delays in the system.

The system means mail plants across the country can be quickly ranked on their on-time performance, and problem areas identified.

Cochrane said it was already pushing mail plant managers to up their facility performances, and that commercial mailers in the US were now getting “the best service you’ve ever had” as a result.

The IMb tracking should help considerably in quickly locating difficulties as the Postal Service radically restructures the size of its processing network.

USPS is planning to close at least 223 of its 461 Area Mail Processing facilities from the second half of this year as it seeks to right-size its network compared to fallen mail volumes, and reduce operating costs by $2.1bn a year in the process.

Mailers have been concerned about the potential delays and hold-ups from such a major restructuring of the USPS network, particularly after problems seen in consolidations that have already taken place.

One high profile example of this recently has been the consolidation of operations from the facility in Frederick, Maryland, into a plant outside Baltimore. This has seen significant hold-ups for mail in the Washington DC area, noticeable to businesses in the US capital who have faced mail that has been in some cases months late.

The situation has now been targeted for an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which is expected to be completed by June.

“We will conduct observations of mail processing activities and review operational data to identify potential issues resulting from the consolidation,” said the OIG. “These issues could include delayed mail, service declines, safety issues and staffing levels.”

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