It may be the ultimate in narcissism. Forget about personalized license plates, credit cards or T-shirts. Now you can have your face immortalized on a postage stamp.
The U.S. Postal Service gave the go-ahead last month for a Los Angeles-based company, Stamps.com, to test-run personally designed stamps, a move that some believe could help boost the fortunes of the beleaguered agency.
Customers can upload their chosen picture on the company's Web site and customize it with banners or framing. Stamps.com will take care of the rest.
"We have had an excellent response so far," said Ken McBride, the company's chief executive. "In the first three weeks of operation alone, we took orders for 40,000 sheets."
Just about anything except sexually explicit, political or copyrighted images can be used, according to McBride.
So far, about 40 percent of requests have included shots of babies and children; 25 percent, adults or families; and 10 percent, pets, with the remainder a miscellany of business logos, landscape images and wedding photos.
"We rejected about 1,000 images in the first three weeks. Most of those involved sexual explicitness, nudity or violence," said McBride.
"We've had some really compelling images, too, like those commemorating fallen soldiers and Marines," he said. "A few have been a little on the odd side, such as a picture of a chair or someone's foot."
The novelty of gracing the top right corner of an envelope commands a premium, however. The stamps cost $16.99 for a sheet of 20, or about 85 cents for a first-class stamp that now costs 37 cents.
The Postal Service receives the value of standard first-class postage, while Stamps.com receives the rest but bears all production, handling and shipping costs.
The idea is not new, acknowledged Postal Service spokesman Gerry McKiernan. Personalized stamps were first used by the Australian postal service and have since been adopted by several countries including Britain, Canada, Switzerland and Ireland.
The program's trial period in the United States will run until the end of September, McKiernan said.
"We're monitoring the situation as it progresses and we will evaluate all aspects of the test run when it concludes," he said.
The pilot program comes at a crucial juncture for the Postal Service. The agency has been dogged by three years of declining mail use, static revenue and spiraling costs -- all of which have contributed to billions of dollars in cumulative losses.
A nine-member presidential commission that last year charted the future of the agency recommended that it allow people to design their own stamps as part of efforts to stem falling revenues.
The commission's report also predicted that mail volume would fall from 202.2 billion pieces in 2003 to 181.7 billion by 2017, a trend McBride believes could be slowed by the popularity of personalized stamps.
"A lot of people are telling us that since these stamps became available, they're sending far more mail than they would otherwise. They are using personalized stamps for stuff like invites and thank-you cards when they would have used e-mail before," McBride said.
Robert E. Lamb, executive director of the American Philatelic Society, agreed. "I think it's an excellent idea," he said. "It will make people more aware of stamps and more conscious about using them. It may even attract people to stamp collecting because of the novelty factor."