I could have written an article with this headline seven years ago. But, if I had, I would have been dead wrong.


Back in the late 1990s, everyone thought Web-based products chief among them, electronic postage were going to change our lives. Then, as the new economy took a nose dive, things got really quiet on the online postage front. Some online postage companies went out of business; others chugged along on increasingly thin margins.


What happened? In hindsight, it's clear: The primary target audiences for online postage were home offices and small businesses. And anyone who has ever tried to use a laser printer to address and apply postage to an envelope will tell you: It's much simpler to lick and apply a stamp or use the old faithful postage meter. Eventually, online postage stopped making headlines altogether until now.


The revival of Internet postage began just a few years ago. Online postage providers began to recognize that one real niche for this service was package shipping. One reason was that Internet usage was much more familiar and accepted among package shippers than it was in the late 1990s. This was due, in part, to the extensive online services offered through major carriers and third-party shipping solution vendors such as Pitney Bowes.


A large part of the credit for reviving the online postage market goes to the U.S. Postal Service itself, which launched its online postage service, Click-N-Ship. In addition to Internet postage, recent introductions that put the Postal Service on more equal footing with the major carriers include:


  • Free, On-demand Package Pickup: Customers can go online to www.usps.com and arrange for package pickup by their letter carriers on the next delivery day at no charge.


  •  Flat-rate Boxes: The U.S. Postal Service recently introduced Priority Mail Flat Rate boxes in two sizes: 11 x 81/2 x 51/2 inches and 117/8 x 33/8 x 35/8 inches. These boxes carry a flat-rate postage of $7.70, regardless of their weights or destinations for the ultimate in customer convenience.


  • Hidden Postage: Stamps and meter tapes make the cost of shipping visible to the package recipient. Carrier costs are never put on the package, allowing shippers to mark up the shipping costs that customers pay. Now, with the hidden postage feature, the U.S. Postal Service also has this advantage.


    Even as the Postal Service adds and improves its services, carriers continue to raise their rates and add surcharges for certain types of residential deliveries. This further increases the U.S. Postal Service's attractiveness to package shippers and the likelihood that they will ship using online postage either directly through www.usps.com or third-party online services.


    Online auctioneer eBay is an indicator that online postage for package shipping is catching on. The company recently partnered with Pitney Bowes to offer online postage as part of its service options for shippers. When an eBay auction is complete, the seller can create a shipping label and purchase postage, choosing from First-Class Mail, Media Mail, Parcel Post, Priority or Express. The service is linked to the shipper's checking account or credit card through PayPal. The feature has rapidly become a popular option for eBay shippers.


    Internet postage brings the U.S. Postal Service a step closer to having a technology solution similar to other carriers. In addition, I fully expect the Postal Service will continue to enhance its competitive position with major carriers by minimizing rate increases and increasing their range of services. (Right now, it is particularly competitive with shipments within a 200-mile radius and for packages under five pounds.) Even many of the major carriers are recognizing the value of utilizing the U.S. Postal Service for "last mile" delivery. The U.S. Postal Service provides excellent service, value and convenience for small package mailing. Your shipping vendor can help you customize a solution that includes Postal Service shipping options.


    Johanna Boller is Director of Product Line Management for Pitney Bowes Distribution Solutions. She can be contacted at johanna.boller@pb.com.

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