USPS’s Merlin Soon to Materialize

After four years of development, Merlin is nearly ready. No, not King Arthur’s wizard, but the U.S. Postal Service’s Mailing Evaluation, Readability Lookup Instrument, a device to assess barcode readability.

In April, the USPS and the Mailers Technical Advisory Committee (MTAC), a mailers/Postal Service work group, agreed that the USPS could start using Merlin to determine whether catalogs and other flat-size mail qualifies for worksharing discounts — a process also known as mail acceptance.

Currently performed manually, mail acceptance gauges whether USPS flats barcode reader/sorters can read the barcodes printed on catalog indicias. Those barcodes that can’t be read are usually too long, too short, too wide, or smeared.

Software glitches delayed the fall 2001 deployment of 160 Merlin devices. Beginning June 1, however, the Postal Service will activate the first of its Merlins, with a gradual implementation of the rest of its machines nationwide. Mailers will be given 60-day grace periods, meaning that the earliest official effective date for the first Merlin machine won’t be until Aug. 1. During the grace periods, the USPS will encourage mailers to test-mail catalogs for Merlin evaluation.

Merlin to mailers: friend or foe?

Whereas the Postal Service’s manual checks for barcode readability of flats often allowed nonautomatable flats to slip through the cracks due to human error, with Merlin fewer mis-barcoded catalogs will pass through. Merlin will reject mailings for postal discounts if fewer than 80% of the barcodes can be read by USPS barcode reader/sorters.

The agency has no available data as to how much mail has received discounts despite having improper barcodes. But Michelle Denny, USPS manager for marketing and technology channel management, says that during recent Merlin testing, up to 25% of catalog mailings didn’t reach the 80% threshold.

With Merlin, if catalogs are rejected, the mailers will have to pay the full per-piece price of mailings — which can be up to 50% greater than bulk mail rates — or get their books’ barcodes reprinted to requalify. In the past, by postal officials would alert catalogers when their books were rejected. Merlin machines produce a printout that explains why their books are rejected.

Discount requirements for letter mail, introduced several years before those for flats, are stricter than for flats: The USPS demands that at least 90% of bulk letter mailings have readable barcodes. Then again, postal letter automation equipment for both the mailing industry and the USPS has always been several years ahead of flats automation. And Denny warns that down the road, the USPS will likely raise the bar to 90% for flats as well.

“Catalogers need to understand that we’re now in a situation where if the mail isn’t prepared properly and the barcode isn’t readable, they won’t qualify for discounts,” says John Wargo, the USPS’s vice president of service and market development. “Our purpose isn’t to have a confrontation with mailers but to show them that they need to have better addressing quality. And over the long run, the only way to protect our discount structure is if the mail really works. So we need to work with mailers to make sure their catalogs are prepared with the proper barcodes.”

At the same time, Merlin can do catalogers a service. The USPS plans to have MTAC compile a best-practices document on barcode readability later this year to share with all catalogers. “Once a cataloger makes a corrective action to get an acceptable barcode readability rate,” Denny says, “it will be able to share that information with other mailers” so that they can improve the deliverability of their catalogs.

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