USPS improves online postage

Postage stamp sales via personal computers have increased 43 percent in the past 10 months, apparently driven by the fast-rising volume of buying and selling through online auctions, a Postal Service official said.

About 391,000 individuals and small businesses subscribe to a service called PC Postage that enables them to print postage stamps and address labels on their personal computers -- and they have been printing with abandon, said Wayne Wilkerson, chief of postage technology management for the Postal Service.

Even though the number of subscribers dipped by about 3 percent from September 2001 and June 2002, the amount of postage sold through PC Postage increased 43 percent, to $73.1 million, Wilkerson said.

He attributes the increase to online auctions. "A lot of it is eBay users," Wilkerson said.

A growing number of people are making money -- some even making a living -- selling items via online auction sites. While sales can be made and cash transferred in cyberspace, someone has to deliver the goods. The Postal Service hopes that the convenience of PC stamp sales will make it the favored courier.

To that end, the Postal Service is rolling out an even easier-to-use version of PC Postage called NetStamps.

The new version enables users to print individual postage labels -- "we don't call them stamps," Wilkerson said -- that can be used anytime and on any item.

The older PC Postage system required stamps to be printed at the time of mailing and produced a stamp that could be used only with a specific address.

"Ease of access is something PC Postage users asked for. They wanted more convenience. You can put this postage in your pocket and not have to sit at computer to use it," Wilkerson said.

With NetStamps, mailers can print a few stamps or a whole sheet of them in whatever denomination needed. The service requires an ordinary ink jet or laser printer.

NetStamps service is not sold directly by the Postal Service, but through Stamps.com, which developed and provides the software, manages mailers' accounts and provides the special paper needed for printing the postage labels.

PC Postage works the same way and is available through several vendors. In addition to the cost of the stamps, which is the same as the cost of stamps bought at the post office, vendors typically sell users the software needed to establish a postage account and print stamps, then charge a monthly fee that ranges from a few dollars to $20 or more.

The Postal Service doesn't make money directly from PC Postage, but the service's convenience does attract customers to the Postal Service, and distributing postage via the Internet is a cost-effective method in keeping with the goal of providing universal service, Wilkerson said.

Software keeps track of the number of stamps printed and postage amounts, Wilkerson said. It also enables mailers to print stamps for the exact cost of mailing and can be connected to an electronic scale to determine precise postage.

And to increase PC Postage's appeal, the Postal Service has also linked it to a delivery confirmation service that lets mailers know when letters or packages have been delivered, he said.

The 391,000 subscribers are about evenly divided between small businesses and households, Wilkerson said. But the household users usually are home-based businesses, including, increasingly, those who do a lot of selling through Internet auctions, he said.

Stamps.com officials said they plan to introduce a Web-based version of NetStamps later this year. That version is intended to further simplify the process of buying and printing postage, the company said.

PC Postage and NetStamps can help the Postal Service save a little money, said Charles Guy, a former director of the Postal Service Office of Economics, Strategic Planning. The most expensive way to sell stamps is over the counter at a post office, he said. It ties up clerks, creates lines in lobbies and is inconvenient. It is cheaper to sell stamps through vending machines, grocery stores and online, he said.

But the savings are miniscule, he said. "It's a nice niche," but it will do little to help the Postal Service conquer the $1.5 billion deficit it expects to incur this year.

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