Once upon a time, adding mailing services to your printing company’s business mix was pretty simple. Known as lettershop services, mailing operations included affixing address labels; sorting mail into bundles of addresses going to the same place (such as a ZIP code or a state); securing the bundles with rubber bands, adding colored stickers to the first mail piece in the bundle, putting the bundles in trays, and taking the trays and a hand-completed form to the post office. We trained our bindery workers to sort and bundle mail, and had on-call workers (often retirees) to assist with big jobs.
Then in 1996 everything changed. The USPS began its transition to automated mail processing, and mail preparation by mailing services providers changed from predominantly handwork to tasks requiring computer skills and equipment to print addresses and barcodes and to affix wafer seals. Some lettershops didn’t make the transition and ceased business. Some equipment vendors did, too.
Concurrent with the shift in the mailing industry, printers have been transitioning production departments from analog to digital. Today’s prepress department is fully digital, digital printing is as viable as offset, and variable data software is affordable and relatively easy to learn. Gather all this together, and there is a growing interest among printers to also become mailing services providers.
The Mailing Department of Today
The center of activity for the mailing department is no longer the bindery, it is database management; the mailing industry equivalent of prepress. And the first investment is software and a PC to run it on. Equip your database department as you would prepress. Emphasize professional software, tools to fix badly constructed files, and programs for output.
Professional grade software means real mail list management software that incorporates address standardization and postal coding. It also has other features like duplicate detection and the ability to produce required USPS reports. Using Excel or Access for mail list management is like using Word or Microsoft Publisher for document creation. If you are serious, make the investment in real mail list management software and in training your employees to use it.
Many customers maintain their own mailing lists, so mailing services providers need software to troubleshoot and fix customer files. The two most common problems with mail lists are structure (the fields that make up each individual record) and content (how each individual field is populated).
A poorly structured mail list invites content problems. For example, if there is no foreign country field, that data will either be left out or entered where it doesn’t belong. This creates a problem for your database manager, who must prepare the list so the address elements will print correctly on the mail piece.
Since printing an address while you are printing the mail piece itself is a variable data printing application, you will need software that controls both the document and the mail list. If you are printing more than one document on a sheet, the software will need a feature called interleaving to keep the addresses in correct presort order.
A suite of software programs for mailing services costs more than a corresponding suite for prepress and is comparable in complexity of use. This means an investment in staff training and a period of low productivity until the person becomes proficient. Proficiency may take longer if there is not enough volume to keep the worker active on mail lists daily.
Besides a computer, the database department will need a high quality postage scale to weigh mail pieces. Accurate weight is required for presorting and to complete the USPS Statement of Mailing. A micrometer is also a useful tool.
Basic lettershop services include addressing the mail piece, tabbing folded self mailers, inserting and sealing envelopes, affixing postage via meter, preparing for bulk mail entry and delivery to the USPS. New and used tabletop and floor model equipment are all available.