Not tracking, not tracing…

After two and a half years of development, the U.S. Postal Service rolled out its parcel delivery confirmation system on March 14. The USPS has hyped the system as a way to provide nearly the same level of service offered by private competitors United Parcel Service and Federal Express, which have had automated tracking, tracing, and delivery confirmation systems for years. Yet while some catalogers are excited about the new service, others ask, “What’s the big deal?”

Delivery confirmation is just (and only) that: Upon delivery, postal carriers log in packages with hand-held electronic scanners, thereby confirming that deliveries of Priority Mail, Parcel Post, and Parcel Select packages were made at a specific time and day. But it does nothing to help catalogers trace packages that are in the mailstream or track down missing packages.

Delivery confirmation from the USPS via the Internet is free for all Priority Mail packages and costs 25 cents a package for Parcel Post and Parcel Select. The USPS has budgeted more than $700 million for the service, primarily to arm its 300,000-plus letter carriers with scanners.

Major obstacle overcome? A lack of delivery confirmation “has been one of our main obstacles to using Priority Mail,” says Chuck Anton, president/CEO of $50 million personal care products cataloger Comtrad Industries. “Perhaps now we’ll shift more packages toward it.” Midlothian, VA-based Comtrad currently ships just 15%-20% of its packages via Priority Mail; it sends most of the rest of its packages with FedEx three-day select and UPS ground.

A current Parcel Post customer, Paoli, PA-based Taylor Gifts, is “pretty excited” about the delivery confirmation service, says director of fulfillment Norm Piper, because it could save the cataloger $100,000 a year in fraud prevention. “We send out 200-300 replacement packages a month, which we believe are mostly to crooks” who claim they haven’t received their packages, Piper says. The $45 million budget gifts mailer ships 90% of its packages Parcel Post, using freight consolidator CTC Distribution Direct to truck them to USPS bulk mail centers, sectional center facilities, or destination delivery units.

The response of catalogers such as Taylor Gifts and Comtrad is exactly what the USPS was hoping for. “We’ve found in market research that delivery confirmation was most important to our customers,” says USPS marketing specialist John Gullo. But $60 million-plus apparel catalog TheTerritory Ahead is one of many mailers that doesn’t see delivery confirmation as a major breakthrough.

Tracking, not delivery confirmation, was The Territory Ahead’s key concern when it switched from UPS to Priority Mail two years ago. Since then, the “outstanding” service, says Jim Davis, vice president of operations for the Santa Barbara, CA-based cataloger, has alleviated even that concern. “But if delivery confirmation is simple for us to use, we might as well try it,” he says.

“We’ll already have enough of an incentive to move more packages to CTC and the USPS once CTC can make more deliveries to destination delivery units,” says Jim Eastham, vice president of operations for $25 million apparel and gifts cataloger Faith Mountain. The Sperryville, VA-based mailer currently ships 50% of its packages via Priority Mail and the rest through UPS. CTC tracks its packages all the way through to the final destination post office, where packages are usually one day away from final delivery, “so we don’t necessarily need delivery confirmation.”

Confusion over confirmation Although the Postal Service is spending some $50 million to promote the service, Gullo says, “We’ve been careful to say this is not a tracking or tracing system.” But UPS begs to differ. A recent press release complained that the USPS “seems intent on treating delivery confirmation as equivalent to tracking.”

Indeed, some catalogers are confusing the confirmation service with tracking. When asked if the new service would encourage him to switch his parcel delivery business to the USPS, Ken Taylor, vice president of operations for $50 million-plus motivational products cataloger Successories, said at first that based on the USPS’s new “ability to track,” his company “will strongly consider using the USPS when our UPS contract period raises its ugly head again in one and a half years.” But when informed that the service can’t track packages, Taylor said, “We’ll still consider it, but we may have to change our company culture a little.”

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