Confusion Reigns Over 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 mailers’ 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. The basic option requires the essential elements of an IMB—service code, mailer ID and the delivery point code.

Full service has all the elements of basic, plus a unique identity on each mail piece. What’s more, full service 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? “There are big issues with lots of confusion,” says Don Landis, vice president of postal affairs for catalog printer Arandell Corp. “Our customers have heard many different versions of what is an IMB and the effective date,” he notes. “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. And as of May 11, 2011, there will be penalties for not complying.

As a printer, Arandell is still concerned with 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.”

Early in 2009, the USPS will announce an Intelligent Mail full service discount at the same time it announces the CPI (Consumer Price Index) increase for postal rates in May. “There will be no discount for basic service,” Landis says. “Rumor has it that it will be a very small discount considering the financial status of the USPS. It might be just another presort rate.”

There does not seem to be “a whole lot of benefit (to using Intelligent Mail) for catalogers,” says Anita Pursley, vice president of postal affairs for Montreal-based printer Quebecor World. She says IMB is makes more sense for periodicals, which receive ACS (Address Correction Service).

ACS involves receiving a notice from the USPS if a mail piece cannot be delivered and why; right now there is a cost for the service. Receiving free ACS with full service Intelligent Mail could mean a big savings for periodical mailers, Landis notes. “But [catalogers] only receive ACS when they request it–and that is not very frequent–so there really is not much of a savings” for them.

Intelligent Mail marks the first mandated barcode change since the USPS invented Postnet in 1980. 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.

Pursley calls Intelligent Mail the “most aggressive and challenging initiative the industry has ever seen.” While the implementation date has been set, the requirements surrounding the use of the IMB are still evolving, she says. “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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