USPS tool proves it's in the mail?and received

Bulk mailers, especially advertisers and utility companies, could benefit from a new technology the U.S. Postal Service is testing that brings an automated confirmation of delivery to letter mail service.

The technology, the Postal Alpha Numeric Encoding Technique, which USPS calls Confirm-PLANET, is similar to current bar code technology that usesa row of hash marks on first-class letters to help sort them automatically.

Confirm-PLANET uses a slightly different bar code containing different information, said Thomas Shipe, manager of technology planning and analysis in the engineering department at USPS' Merrifield, Va., facility.

The customer adds the bar code to the front of a letter. The bar code is scanned when the letter enters the mail stream and again when it is sorted for the carrier, providing confirmation that it was delivered.

There is considerable demand for this technology, Shipe said. Confirm-PLANET also could be used by a company to determine whether letters they expect to receive have been posted, he said.

Retailers could use Confirm-PLANET to check how many advertisements they have mailed have been delivered and to whom — information they could use to prepare stores for shoppers that saw the ads, Shipe said.

A utility company also could use the technology to learn whether a check is indeed in the mail. In that scenario, the utility would print the bar code on the return envelope it sends with the bill and then monitor data collected from letters entering the mail stream to confirm that their customers sent the envelope back.

The Postal Service cannot guarantee that an envelope contains a check, Shipe said, but if a utility company knows its return envelope has been posted, it probably would not feel the need to send a customer a reminder.

James Lucier, an analyst at Prudential Securities Inc., said the technology turns "dumb mail" into "smart mail," creating another service that USPScan charge for.

"The ongoing trend is that dumb mail is dead or dying as a profit source, whereas smart mail has more of a future," Lucier said. "This is only the first of many things the Postal Service would like to do in order to offer value-added services to compete with FedEx and UPS."

Bulk mailers are always concerned about quality control and want anything that gives their campaigns an edge, Lucier said. If they can get confirmation that their mail is being delivered at the same time their TV and radio commercialsare running, they'll pay for it, he said.

Confirm-PLANET required USPS to set up a network of data collection computers to store the scanned data, but it uses the same readers the USPS uses to sort the mail, said Steve Miller, manager of distribution technology for the USPS engineering group.

Miller said the technology is designed for letter mail, while the delivery confirmation service that USPS currently offers is designed mainly for packages and does not involve any additional technology.

USPS is completing testing on the technology and aims to roll out the service nationwide over the next year.

Another technology the Postal Service is working on would increase the efficiency of mail forwarding. Under the current system, a letter that is sent to an address that's no longer valid is returned to the post office, which prints a yellow sticker bearing the correct address and puts the letterback into the mail stream.

The new method would recognize that the address is incorrect when the letter first enters the mail stream, Shipe said. It would be forwarded much more quickly because the incorrect address would be recognized sooner. The technology is still several years away from being used, Shipe said.

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