Drooping enthusiasm for automation

YOU HAVE TO GIVE THE U.S. POSTAL SERVICE some credit for trying to do right (or, maybe, less wrong) by catalogers in the past two years, with the lower rate hikes and summer mail sales. But it still seems the USPS needs a reality check on catalogs.

I’m talking about the final rule on the deflection standards, or “droop” test, published in February. This test is designed to prevent flimsy catalogs from jamming up the Postal Service’s equipment. But as Jim Tierney’s story on page 16 points out, it’s riddled with problems for catalog mailers.

For one, the test for compliance with the new standards is too subjective. Whether your catalogs pass or fail is going to be largely up to the postal worker that day — not good.

And there are harsh penalties for failing the test. I’ve also heard that the standards could create problems with comailing — something catalogs now rely on to keep costs down.

It doesn’t help that a USPS spokesperson suggests catalogers add inserts or use a different paper stock for the cover to ensure that their catalogs past the droop test. Really?

You’d think the USPS would understand that merchants have resorted to thinner catalogs because they need to cut costs. According to MCM’s Outlook 2010 survey, 40% of respondents have decreased catalog page counts in the past year; the same percentage have decreased paper stock/weight.

And with catalogs becoming more of a branding tool and Web/store driver, mailers may never return to fat catalogs with heavy paper. The USPS will just have to deal with that.

The deflection dilemma reminds me of the limitations the Postal Service recently put on slim-jim-size catalogs. Thanks to the new tabbing and thickness requirements for slim-jims, it’s hardly worth it to mail the tall, skinny booklets, so many catalogers have abandoned the size.

I said this about slim-jims in 2008, and I’ll say it again now about deflection: Instead of trying to force catalogers to revise their books to fit its equipment, perhaps the USPS should change its machines so that they can handle thinner catalogs. Because droopy catalogs are most likely the new reality.

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