Catalogers Confused About Intelligent Mail Barcodes

The U.S. Postal Service has Long Been Touting the Intelligent Mail barcode (IMB) as a revolutionary change — one that will expand catalogers’ ability to track individual pieces of mail and provide greater visibility into the mail stream. But many catalogers and industry experts have more questions than answers on the IMB.

Designed to upgrade the current four-state customer barcode, Intelligent Mail uses a 65-bar USPS barcode to sort and track letters and flats. The IMB provides mailers with more digits to use, allowing for unique identification of up to a billion mail pieces per mailing.

When Intelligent Mail is implemented in May 2009, mailers will be able to choose from two options: basic and full service. Basic requires the essential elements of an IMB — service code, mailer ID and the delivery point code.

Full service adds a unique identity on each mail piece, and combines this individual mail identity with aggregate information for primary containers such as trays, tubs and sacks. The data from the primary containers is attributed to secondary containers such as pallets.

So what’s the problem with Intelligent Mail? “Our customers have heard many different versions of what is an IMB and the effective date,” says Don Landis, vice president of postal affairs for catalog printer Arandell Corp. “Most do not understand the internal data structure they will need.”

And the dates for compliance are creeping up. The USPS will require all automation flats to bear barcodes (IMBs or Postnet barcodes) that include delivery point routing codes — as currently required for automation letters — starting May 11, 2009.

Catalogers will have until May 11, 2011, to abide by the IMB regulations, though the USPS will begin offering discounts for using the “full service” IMB next fall. Also as of May 11, 2011, there will be penalties for not complying.

As a printer, Arandell is still concerned about being able to print the IMB, Landis says. “We printers have invested a lot of capital in the IMB and are concerned there will be no way of realizing any ROI. And mailers want to know what discounts will be offered before they decide if full service is worth the investment, he adds. “All but one of our customers have stated that with the information available today, they will not use full service.”

In addition to new data and processing requirements, the graphics, fonts, coding and print specifications for the IMB are different from any existing barcode used today. Companies must create the new barcode, plus eliminate any current barcodes such as Postnet or Planet codes.

Anita Pursley, vice president of postal affairs for Montreal-based printer Quebecor World, notes that while the implementation date has been set, the requirements surrounding the use of the IMB are still evolving. “The industry needs to constantly monitor the requirements and determine if the anticipated benefits are worth the substantial time and investments necessary to comply.”

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