Slim chances

Jun 01, 2008 9:30 PM  By

Does the U.S. Postal Service hate catalogs? From the major rate hike it imposed on them in 2007 to the proposed restrictions on “slim-jims,” or letter-size catalogs, it certainly seems like the USPS is doing everything in its power to discourage catalog merchants from mailing.

If that’s its goal, it’s working: The Postal Service reports that Standard Mail flats (catalog) volume fell 12.5% in its second quarter. Standard Mail flats volume year-to-date is down 13.2% from same period last year.

And as our cover story “Slim-jims get squeezed” points out, catalog mail volume will seriously freefall if the USPS changes the requirements for slim-jim-size books. The agency wants to cut back on the allowable thickness and require more heavy-duty tabs to seal the pages shut.

Why is this such a big deal now? Slim-jims have long been the savior for catalogs when postage and paper prices go up.

In fact, as a few people interviewed for the story point out, when the postal rate case was announced last May, the USPS encouraged catalogers to use slim-jims as an alternative. No wonder mailers are up in arms.

The Postal Service is having tough times of its own — it’s actually in worse shape these days than many catalogers. (How would you like to have to gas up a private fleet of more than 200,000 vehicles?) It posted a second quarter loss of $707 million.

And now that the Postal Service is limited to rate increases tied to the Consumer Price Index, thanks to the postal reform bill passed in late 2006, it’s not likely to make up for those steep declines anytime soon.

Bottom line: The Postal Service needs catalog mail desperately. So putting restrictions on slim-jim mailers — who switched to the size only because they needed to offset the higher postage — is not the way to go.

Ross-Simons officials have a good suggestion for the USPS: That it move the saturation level for flats from 10 pieces to six, which would give smaller mailers the same rates as larger catalogers.

I have a suggestion for the Postal Service, too: Instead of changing your standards for slim-jims — after mailers have already invested in redesigns — how about fixing your catalog sorting machines?