Mail-tracking tech touted

Soon, when a creditor hears, "The check is in the mail," the Postal Service may be able to tell whether that's true.

The U.S. Postal Service says greater use of bar codes and sophisticated bar code scanners may soon make it possible to track every piece of mail.

Besides eliminating the time-worn excuse, that capability could make it possible for postal customers to know more precisely when letters and packages will arrive and might improve the efficiency of the Postal Service and companies that rely heavily on the mail, USPS officials say.

Developing the ability to track each piece of mail was one of several high-tech suggestions offered by a task force established to improve Postal Service performance. The Mailing Industry Task Force is made up of companies that depend on the mail, such as credit card companies, and companies that sell technology related to the Postal Service, such as Pitney Bowes Inc.

For companies that depend on the Postal Service to do business, the ability to track individual letters could mean greater efficiency. For example, a company that mails product promotions to consumers would know more precisely when the promotions would arrive and could better plan when to add workers to their call centers to handle an influx of orders.

For postal customers, tracking individual pieces of mail could mean knowing more precisely when a package would arrive, task force officials said Oct. 15.

Along with "mailpiece" tracking, the task force recommended providing more convenient service, such as delivering personal mail to customers at work rather than at home, and providing 24-hour service, which would be offered through kiosks in locations such as malls, grocery stores and gas stations.

Task force members also called for more favorable postal rates, including adoption of "a pricing strategy based upon predictable increases at or below the rate of inflation."

The Mailing Industry Task Force did not say how much its recommendations would cost. However, past Postal Service investments in technology have yielded poor returns, according to the General Accounting Office, which conducts investigations for Congress.

Major investments in automation and information technology during the past 30 years have increased productivity by only about 11 percent, GAO reported earlier this year. Nevertheless, the Postal Service plans to spend more than $17 billion during the next five years on automation and IT in hopes of achieving a productivity "breakthrough" that saves at least $1 billion a year.

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