Postal Service Sees Simplicity in 31 Digits

By Stephen Barr
Monday, February 18, 2008

The U.S. Postal Service is launching a 31-digit bar code that will permit business customers -- advertisers, catalogue and credit card companies -- to track their mail, from the drop-off at a post office to delivery at a home or office.

The project is called Intelligent Mail, and it holds the potential to let companies know if customers are telling the truth when they say the check is in the mail.

"Intelligent mail is like having a GPS system for mail," Postmaster General John E . Potter said when he announced the project last year.

Potter has pushed since the summer of 2002 for a way to track commercial mail as it travels through the postal network. The effort is on the fast track now, and the Postal Service plans to launch the system in January 2009. A federal notice has been published, and the public has until Thursday to file comments and concerns.

Big bucks are riding on the bar code. The nation's business mailers qualify for less-expensive mail rates if they bundle their letters, packages and magazines in ways that reduce sorting and delivery time for the post office. Bar codes are the key to getting the discounted postage rates, currently valued at about $18 billion.

With the new bar code, companies will be able to track mail delivery and know when their customers got a bill, solicitation or product, and the Postal Service will have another way of checking that mail is being delivered on time.

Companies also will be given a chance to buy data collected by the post office that will give them insights into how customers respond to advertising and marketing. A company, for instance, can buy a television or newspaper ad to tout a new product, follow up with an announcement in the mail and get a sense of how well the ad is connecting with customers.

The data, postal executive Thomas G. Day said, should help companies answer such questions as: "When I get it to you on this day, what is your response? Do you actually go to my Web site that day? Do you go to my retail store that day or within a day or two?"

The Postal Service's primary interest, however, is in using the intelligent mail bar code to bring more efficiency to its operations and increase the value of mail for companies that are tempted to hawk their wares through e-mail and Internet ads.

At the start, the bar code project involved officials in the Postal Service's technology, engineering, operations and marketing divisions, who were basically working on their piece of the project without much coordination. Potter quickly saw that such a fragmented approach carried too much risk.

"Jack was the visionary here," said Day, senior vice president for intelligent mail and address quality. "He understood he needed a particular focus on this to drive it forward, because it was such a cross-functional activity."

Although some commercial mailers sending letters, magazines and catalogues have been using the intelligent mail bar code for the last two years on a voluntary basis, the Postal Service intends to make the 31-digit code mandatory next January.

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