Cleaning up catalog spoilage

Many merchants strive to keep mailing costs in check by decreasing overall catalog weight. But paper basis weight and finish play an integral role in how a catalog goes through the mail. If your contact center is receiving an increased number of complaints about torn or missing covers or requests for another catalog because the first was ruined, you may have a spoilage problem.

Spoilage causes

“I don’t think most catalogers take into consideration the wear and tear on their catalogs when they change paper weight,” says Don Landis, vice president, postal affairs at Menomonee Falls, WI-based printer Arandell Corp. “They only look at the postage savings, which is easy to see, whereas wear and tear is a mystery.” But one only has to tour a postal facility to see the damage suffered by catalogs printed on the lighter stocks, he says.

“Catalog spoilage” refers to any damage to a catalog inflicted by manufacturing, handling, and the postal system in the normal process of delivering a catalog to a customer. The damage can include folded and missing covers, undelivered catalogs that slipped off forklifts at a mailing facility, and torn pages.

Once the catalogs have left the printer, spoilage typically occurs during the automated sorting process. The U.S. Postal Service uses two types of sorting machines: the automated flat sorting machine (AFSM 100) and the upgraded flat sorting machine (UFSM 1000). Marc McCrery, manager of operational requirements and integration for the U.S. Postal Service, says that by default the USPS passes most catalogs through the AFSM 100, which is less forgiving of the size, weight, and rigidity of catalogs.

The AFSM 100 accepts catalogs 6″-15″ long by 5″-12″ high. They may be no thinner than 0.009″, no thicker than 3/4″, and weigh no more than 20 oz. Additionally, the catalog must pass the Turning Ability and Deflection test by bending between two concentric arcs drawn on a horizontal surface, one with a radius of 15.72″ and the other 16.72″. It also must also pass the “droop test” by being able to extend 5″ past a flat surface, unsupported, without drooping more than 1-3/4″ (if the catalog is less than 1/8″ thick) or more than 2-3/8″ (if the catalog is between 1/8″ and 3/4″ thick).

Catalogs typically diverted to the UFSM 1000 are flats that are too thick (greater than 3/4″ thick) or too heavy (greater than 20 oz.). If a catalog is extremely rigid — such as one packaged in a box — that could also cause it to be diverted to the UFSM 1000, says McCrery.

For catalogs meant to pass through the less-forgiving AFSM 100, three factors increase the chances of mailstream spoilage:

  1. Excessive handling

    “The fewer hands you have touching the catalogs the better,” says David Goldschmidt, vice president of sales and marketing, catalog division for Strategic Paper Group, a Newport, CA-based paper brokerage. After a catalog is printed, it generally begins the journey to a customer’s home by being trucked to a USPS bulk mail center (BMC), destination sectional center facility (DSCF), or destination delivery unit (DDU). Mail that originates in one of the 29 BMCs will be sorted and moved to one of the 485 DSCFs, where it will once again be sorted before being moved to one of the 38,000 DDUs, otherwise known as local post offices. So catalogs that originate at a BMC, the postal point farthest from the end user, will be handled more than catalogs originating at a DSCF or a DDU.

    Of course, the decrease in handling and the lower risk of spoilage isn’t the only benefit of instigating a catalog mailing at a DSCF or a DDU. You can also benefit from USPS worksharing discounts by depositing your catalogs deeper into the mailstream. The discount on postage is somewhat counterbalanced, however, by the additional costs of contracting with a consolidator or zone skipper to truck your catalogs to the DSCFs or DDUs.

    To reduce handling and start the mailing process as close to the end user as possible, Goldschmidt suggests choosing a printer with a large volume of regular catalog clients. A printer with this sort of expertise may better be able to help you deliver your books farther into the system, perhaps by arranging a comailing with its other catalog clients.

  2. Lightweight and heavily lacquered covers

    Catalogs with lightweight — say, 38-lb. basis weight — covers are more likely to tear, slip, stick, or become mangled as they speed through the USPS sorting machines. “It will have a rough ride,” says Goldschmidt. There is only so much that the catalog’s stitches or staples can do to hold the inside pages and the cover together.

    Catalogs with heavily lacquered or high-gloss covers also have a tough time with sorting machines because of the paper’s low friction coefficient. These catalogs have a greater possibility of twisting and becoming damaged. To test a cover for low friction, twist it slightly to see how easily it slides against the catalog’s inner pages. If it glides effortlessly against the pages, the USPS recommends reconsidering the cover finish.

  3. Thin catalogs

    The aforementioned droop test was once a major consideration of catalog production teams. When a catalog fails the droop test because it is too thin — and hence too droopy — it is sent to be processed through the UFSM 100 rather than the AFSM 100. And if it can’t be processed as an automated flat but must be sorted as a nonautomated flat, you will be charged an additional $0.031 postage per piece.

Now that the Postal Service is using the AFSM and the UFSM, which differ only in the size and rigidity of the flats that they accept, “most mailers have put their droop-test devices in mothballs,” says Arandell’s Landis. But catalogers shouldn’t be so complacent, especially if their catalog have no more than 16 pages or a printed on lower-weight paper.

Covering the options

Most experts recommend using a heavier paper for your catalog covers even if it means choosing a lighter basis weight for the inside pages as a way of offsetting a postage increase. The Postal Service advises catalogers to use at least 50-lb. cover stock, though not more than 80-lb. stock, and to avoid using aqueous lacquer, lacquer, ultraviolet coating, and other high-gloss coatings on covers. Low- or medium-gloss coating on covers is better than matte, Goldschmidt adds, as matte covers tend to scuff and show the markings of the people who’ve handled them.

Michael Eisenberg, director of marketing for Medford, OR-based musical supply cataloger Musician’s Friend, says his catalogs generally sport paper on the lighter side of what’s recommended by the USPS for its covers — 60.8 lb. He hasn’t noticed any signs of spoilage, he adds.

And some catalogers that use even lighter-weight papers say that spoilage isn’t a problem for them either. Off-price apparel, sporting goods, and home good merchant Sierra Trading Post is a case in point. Although it uses a 36-lb. high-gloss paper for the majority of its covers, the Cheyenne, WY-based mailer hasn’t been hit hard by mailstream damage, says catalog production manager Sheila Russell. (Only the cover of Sierra Trading’s main book, a slim-jim, uses a heavier, 50-lb. stock, in order to accommodate a clear tab closure.) Russell says the cataloger switched from 40-lb. cover paper during the past year to save on postage costs and because its new paper stock, from Stora Enso, feels thicker than it actually is.

Alexa Ricketts, director of catalog marketing at Portsmouth, VA-based The Smithfield Catalog Co., hasn’t experienced excessive spoilage either, even though it uses a gloss 60-lb. paper for both its covers and its interior pages. “I have been doing this for 16 years, and we haven’t seen anything like that happen here,” she says. “We’re very happy using the self-cover.”

The food cataloger — whose titles include The Smithfield Ham Catalog, The Peanut Shop of Williamsburg, Basse’s Choice, and The Smithfield Collection — will occasionally receive a complaint about spoilage caused by the adhesive tabs that hold its letter-sized catalogs together. The problem, Ricketts says, is not widespread. She believes that the fault lies not with the Postal Service but rather the print house, whose errors cause the tabs to get caught on sorting machines.