USPS Changes Affect Mail Piece Design

Quick printers who become mailers quickly learn that there is a direct relationship between the size and shape of the mail piece (including the design and location of the mail panel—the area where the address appears) and the postage rate. The USPS rewards mailers whose mail pieces conform to its preferred physical standards with lower postage rates because the mail can be efficiently processed on automated sortation equipment.

If you design and print catalogs, newsletters with a cover, pamphlets, or multi-sheet newsletters that are stitched, then you need to know about two recent changes adopted by the USPS that may impact what your customer has to pay for postage. Being able to identify and inform your customer about the relationship between mail piece design and postage is an important part of customer service, whether or not you are a mailer.

USPS Mail Categories

The USPS divides mail into four main categories—post cards, letters, large envelopes (called flats), and packages. The determination of what category a mail piece falls into depends on its physical characteristics—length, height, thickness, and weight.

The three categories for which quick printers most often design and print a mail piece are:

  • Post cards are between 5-6" long, 3.5-4.25" high, and 7- to 16-point thick.
  • Letters are between 5-11.5" long, 3.5-6.125" high, 0.007-0.25" thick, and weigh no more than 3.5 ounces.
  • Flats are between 11.5-15" long, 6.125-12" high; 0.25 -0.75" thick, and weigh no more than 13 ounces.

It is important to understand that for the USPS, the terms post card and letter are generic and have a precise meaning defined by physical characteristics. The USPS definition doesn’t always agree with what customers think of when they hear post card and letter. For example, a letter doesn’t have to be a piece of paper enclosed in an envelope. It could be a post card that measures 8.5x 5.5", or a four-page newsletter printed on an 11x17" sheet and folded to a finished size of 5.5x8.5".

Postage rates are set for each category based on the ease of processing, with the lowest rate for post cards, followed by letters, followed by flats. Within each category, a postage discount is available for mail that is addressed and prepared by the mailer prior to delivery to the USPS. An additional discount is available for prepared mail that can be processed using USPS high speed sorting equipment.

USPS Flat Sequencing System

As part of its continued improvement of high speed mail sorting, in the summer of 2008 the USPS began deploying new flat sorting equipment as part of its Flat Sequencing System (FSS). This change of equipment meant the location and form of the address on flat mail had to be standardized. Accordingly, in March 2009 the USPS changed the requirements for addressing on flat mail for which the mailer claims a postage discount.

The changes are in the point size of type used in the address (8-point), the kind of type (no overlapping lines or characters, which rules out the use of most script typefaces), and the location of the address, which now must be placed either parallel or perpendicular to the top edge in the top half of the mail piece. A parallel address must not be upside down in relation to the top edge; a perpendicular address may face either left or right.

Shape-Based Postage Rates

In 2007, the USPS introduced postage rates based on the shape of the mail piece—shape being defined as length, height, thickness, and rigidity/flexibility. The new rates recognized the additional cost of processing flats versus letters and flats versus packages. The intent of the change was to encourage mailers to redesign mail pieces to a different, more efficient processing category. As a result, many booklets that had been mailed as flats were folded and tabbed to meet the definition of letter mail.

This change had an unexpected consequence: On some booklets, the additional fold created a mail piece so thick or so unevenly folded that the tab or tabs failed during processing, resulting in jams and damage to equipment. In response, the USPS announced new standards for letter-sized booklets, including changes in maximum dimensions, changes in stock required for the cover, new requirements for tabbing, and a new definition of booklet. The final rule was published in April 2009. The implementation date for this rule is September 8, 2009, by which time all mailers will have to be in compliance.

New Rules for Letter-Sized Booklets

The new standards for letter-sized booklets apply to any mail piece meeting the definition of a booklet and mailing as letter mail. A booklet consists of sheets or pages saddle stitched or perfect bound to create a nearly uniformly thick mail piece. The dimensions are a maximum of 9-10.5" long (depending on booklet design), 6" high, between 9-point and 0.25" thick (measured at the spine), weight not exceeding three ounces. No perforated tabs are allowed and, in most cases, three 1.5" tabs will be required.

Some publications that might be affected by the new standards are catalogs, newsletters with covers, pamphlets, and perhaps newsletters consisting of two or more sheets stitched together. An unbound newsletter is considered a folded self-mailer, and the requirements for folded self-mailers are being tested this summer.

The options for any mail piece that meets the definition of a booklet are:

  • Comply with the new requirements and mail at letter rate.
  • Enclose the mail piece inside an envelope and mail at letter rate.
  • Omit stitching and mail at letter rate.
  • Omit final fold to letter size and mail as a flat (may mean changing the location of the mail panel).
  • Give up automation and machinable postage discounts.

Each of these options has associated cost implications (higher printing and mailing services charges, higher postage) or customer preference issues.

Three months remain before September 8, when the new standards become mandatory. Use the time to explain options to customers and come to a decision on which one to implement. And keep current on the USPS proposals for folded self mailers—a very prevalent form for newsletters.

Nancy DeDiemar is president of Printing Resources of Southern California, a quick print shop in Upland, CA, offering printing, copying, electronic prepress, and mailing services. Nancy is the co-publisher of Printips (www.printips.com), a newsletter subscription service for printers. Contact her at Nancy@printingresources.com.

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