Live from the Industry/USPS Flats Summit: Mailers to USPS: Don’t Force Us to Conform

Washington–Most mailers who spoke during the July 16 Industry/U.S. Postal Service Flats Summit in Washington sounded a common alarm to the USPS regarding the future of flats (including most catalogs) design and postal automation: Don’t kill our creativity. A variety of mailers, including representatives from catalogs, magazine publishers, direct mail advertising firms, and other direct mailers, spoke out against the agency’s flats automation plan, which is designed to improve postal efficiency at the cost of flats mail creativity.

In addressing L.L. Bean’s and other catalogers’ concerns regarding the U.S. Postal Service’s flats automation strategy (see accompanying story: “USPS Lays Groundwork for Flats Delivery Improvements” on our site), Bean vice president of corporate marketing Steve Fuller said that with the cataloger’s unusual sized catalogs (6” x 9”), “our concern is that we make our books stand out because they represent our brand. We’re also very concerned about deliverability of our catalogs and the timing off it,” he said. “The Postal Service does a tremendous job, but there are nevertheless long delivery delays.” Otherwise, he said, Bean’s concerns over the future rates and potential restrictions placed on flats “are the same most mailers have.”

Among other mailers speaking during the forum, Joyce McGarvey, distribution director for business magazine publisher Crain Communications, noted in her discussion that Crains, whose magazines are all tabloid size, has used alternate delivery for some of its distribution, as a means of getting a foot in the door if USPS size and shape limitations force it to go that route in the future.

For Reader’s Digest, which last year bought Reiman Publications, a magazine publisher and cataloger, one of the keys to future mail creativity is continued flexibility in the design of polybagged mailers, said former Catalog Age circulation director Renee Jordan, who is currently Readers Digest’s vice president, circulation operations.

While noting that something needs to change in flats mail processing due to rising costs, Joe Lubenow, president of Lubenow & Associates, wondered that despite “the best efforts to take costs out of the system, does the (automation) analogy between flats and letters hold? Flats are harder to handle, and there are fewer of them [than letters]. So the industry is in a better position to consolidate flats than it is letters. There are increased incentives on the table so more flats can be drop-shipped and carrier route presorted in the [USPS-proposed] product redesign on the table now.”

Lubenow noted that if the machines required for the USPS-proposed flats automation strategies do “what they’re intended to do, there would be more consistency in mail processing with a significant reduction in misdelivery and labor taken out,” he said.

The USPS plan will require a lot of variables to fall into place, Lubenow said. “Even with all due diligence being exercised, the best course of action won’t be known for some time,” he said. “The complexity in building either option—DPP or FSS—involves trends in mail volume, assumptions of economic conditions, both best-case and worse-case productivity, and some flexibility.”

Also sounding alarm was Jim Bowler, executive director, postal affairs, for Publishers Clearing House. “What happens to the flats that don’t fit these machines? Where do we go?” He said that regardless of the FSS or DPP, neither would be practical for all flats. “I don’t view the strategy as process improvement, rather a bait and switch,” he said. “The USPS needs to reevaluation the strategy or we’ll have no other choice but to pursue other options.”

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