Chances are you've noticed a significant increase in the number of parcels processed in your mail center on any given day. It's not just a passing or seasonal trend; it's the new reality of doing business in the borderless and connected world of commerce.

Over the past two years, parcel shipping volumes have grown by double digits in most major markets. The growth of ecommerce is the key driver behind this explosive growth. As more consumers look to purchase goods online and more retailers expand their reach to markets around the world, parcel shipping will continue to grow by leaps and bounds.

In fact, parcel shipping is now having a significant impact on both corporate operating costs and customer satisfaction. A recent survey by Pitney Bowes found that 70% of Americans consider shipping options an important part of the shopping experience, compared to 66% in 2013. Also, 33% of respondents said they plan to pay more attention to shipping this year compared to last year. This means that a brand's ability to provide a variety of shipping options can make a difference in attracting and retaining customers.

It also means that to succeed, shippers need the flexibility to offer and pick the best options for each parcel, balancing service levels and costs based on individual customer requirements.

Most people demand the visibility to track where their order is at any time. According to our research, 81% of customers track their orders when expecting a delivery versus 68% in 2013, and say automated alerts give them added confidence in a business' operations. Tracking the shipping process and results on a parcel-by-parcel basis also helps a business respond to customer issues and questions in real time. In addition, tracking generates roll-up reports across vendors that can help identify performance trends and opportunities for improvement.

Cost, of course, remains a critical factor. Thirty-five percent of American consumers have abandoned a purchase due to higher than expected shipping costs. This is why shippers are continually looking to add more affordable options to offer their customers. What all this means is that every organization should take another look at the U.S. Postal Service as part of their carrier mix.

A More Viable Option
In the past, the USPS lagged behind the private carriers in terms of parcel shipping technology and service. For years, the well-known, highly successful private carriers set the industry standard for client service and visibility, from parcel pick-up to delivery, and every step along the way. The well-earned reputation of these carriers for outstanding client service and tracking capabilities has led many shippers to dismiss the USPS for parcel shipping because it did not offer comparable service levels and options.

Well, that is changing. The USPS has made a significant investment and commitment over the past several years to enhance its parcel shipping service offerings and implement new technologies to provide more competitive options for businesses. More specifically, the USPS has enhanced its Priority Mail service, invested in its network scanning capabilities to enable more visibility and tracking, and introduced innovative offerings like Flat Rate shipping.

At the center of the USPS technology resurgence is the Intelligent Mail package barcode (IMpb). The IMpb is the next generation USPS tracking barcode for parcels that offers mailers similar visibility into the shipping process as their private carrier competitors, with very competitive rates. It utilizes the same barcode symbology as the current Confirmation Services barcode, but adds some key enhancements.

Additionally, the IMpb can add automatic parcel insurance for packages shipped by Priority Mail and Priority Mail Express. And most importantly, an IMpb-compliant label enables end-to-end package tracking - affording visibility throughout the delivery process, from shipping to customer delivery.

With the IMpb, the USPS can now provide up to 11 scan events for every parcel it ships and notify recipients of any attempted delivery. The ability to track a package in transit supplies the level of responsive service customers have come to expect. IMpb will also enable new service enhancements, which could include email or SMS text delivery alerts with post-delivery actions and a delivery information summary for all packages.

In addition, the Intelligent Mail package barcode gives shippers a wealth of information that can be especially useful for companies to better manage their mail and shipping operations. In this way, each IMpb is the gateway to an entire unique shipping story: including who sent the parcel, what happened during transit, who took delivery, and ultimately when it was delivered.

Consolidating Carriers for Sending
For many small and midsized businesses in the US and around the world, the line between shipping and mailing is blurring. These organizations look at shipping and mailing as sending. They simply send stuff, which can include statements, parcels, letters, flats, etc. They want a simple and efficient process for sending.

And since all mail centers in the US already use the USPS for mailings, this newly competitive package capability makes it easy to centralize and consolidate mailing and shipping with one carrier, at one location. Add in the value and convenience of having your shipper on premises every day delivering the mail, and the USPS becomes a very attractive option for many businesses.

To access these IMpb-enabled services, mailers need to apply an IMpb-barcoded label or USPS Tracking Label 400 with a tracking number to all packages. Using a commercially available PC or web-based shipping solution will allow you to take advantage of all the value-added services IMpb has to offer. The software will produce IMpb labels with the proper barcode and send all necessary shipping information to the USPS.

Bundling a PC or web-based software solution with your meter gives you even more flexibility to leverage these value added services, including commercially competitive tracking capabilities, free insurance, and Extra Services.

There is a range of IMpb-compliant software solutions available to meet your needs, whether you send an occasional package or you're sending high volumes.

Next Steps
We live in a borderless and connected world of commerce. Embracing new technologies - like the USPS Intelligent Mail package barcode - can help you better manage your operations. Enhanced tracking, day specific delivery, free insurance, free pickup and optional hold for pickup makes the USPS a viable option for your sending needs. On par with major private carriers, 98% of USPS mail carriers now have package scanners, and the average number of USPS scans rivals FedEx and UPS. USPS also offers very competitive rates for packages under three pounds, free daily pickup, and Saturday delivery at no extra charge.

I encourage you to talk with a certified mailing consultant to learn about how you can take advantage of these new services and tools to enhance and simplify your operations. New tracking technology, coupled with rate shopping and carrier management tools, can help you better serve your customers to grow your business.

Patrick Brand is Vice President and President, Pitney Bowes Mailing, North America.