Monday, May 16, 2011

Passing Along My Mail Center Knowledge

I went to the post office today. The lines were outrageous, both inside at the service desk and in the lobby at the automated mail machine. I watched a lady struggle for 15 minutes to mail four [domestic!] packages. And then it turned out she was mailing books. She paid Priority postage instead of book rate (media mail) postage - she probably spent a total of $25 when she could have spent closer to $10.

Even with the automated machine's clunky interface and several screens with offers of unnecessary services, it only took me about 2-3 minutes to mail two packages. I will admit, I have a bit of experience with shipping and mailing - I worked in Hope College's mail center for 3 years. I've dealt with USPS, UPS, and FedEx, both domestic and international, as well as presorted bulk mailings. Since I know about all the options, I know what I want. I'm going to venture a guess and say that the reason the lines at the post office are so long and people struggle so much is mainly due to A) bad advertising and B) lack of knowledge. I don't know everything, but I'm going to pass along my knowledge of the basics so that whoever reads this can make more informed decisions about how they mail things.

Sure it's convenient... but you'll pay the price.

Let's talk about A). I'm guessing you have heard the slogan, "If it fits, it ships!". The US Postal Service has been really pushing their Flat Rate boxes. Some of their reasons make sense, but, the average person who needs to mail something (i.e. someone who is shipping a package to a family member - not running a small business) does NOT need flat rate shipping. In general, unless you're shipping something very heavy, very far (i.e. shipping three dozen cookies, an 8x10 picture frame, and five packages of extra clean underwear, from California to your college student in Michigan), you really don't need Flat Rate shipping.

On to B). Here are your basic options, and some tips/guidelines. If you know what your options are, you should know what you want, and be able to pay a fair price.

Express Mail - really unnecessary unless you need something to get somewhere by the next day. Wanna pay $18 to ship something that could have gone for 44 cents if you would've shipped it a week earlier? Didn't think so. If the receiver can wait 2-3 days, priority mail should be fine.

Priority Mail - Basically, Priority Mail is forced upon you if your package is over a certain weight limit, even if you don't need it to get there quickly. Generally, Priority Mail takes 2-3 days, depending on the distance it has to travel. The lowest price you'll pay is around $5, and it goes up from there depending on what "zone" it's being delivered to. Flat rate mail, described above, is also a Priority mail service, but the pricing doesn't depend on zones or weight - only on size.

First Class Mail - First class mail takes a bit longer than Priority and includes your letters (44 cents if under one ounce, 64 cents if between 1 and 2, etc. - also subject to size restrictions), flats (bigger and/or thicker than a letter, up to the size of a large manilla envelope), and parcels (packages that don't fit in the above size categories, but are still light enough not to have to be sent priority). If you're sending more than 5 sheets of paper in an envelope, get it weighed to check you've got enough postage on it; otherwise it'll be sent back to you. Please don't try to send oddly shaped objects in a letter - your envelope could get caught in the mail machine and rip open, destroying the contents and pissing off the postal workers since they have to go reset the machine. If you're just under or at the thickness limit, move up to a flat to be safe. If you're sending something that doesn't bend easily (like a CD in a case) - send it as a parcel, not a flat. Also: don't guess. Sticking 5 stamps on a package and praying it's enough isn't going to help you. Just go to the dang post office if you're unsure.

Media Mail - This is something that all college students should know about, as well as anybody who buys or sells books online. Books can get heavy, especially when they're college textbooks. I hardly keep any of my textbooks after using them for a semester, and instead sell them online to try to get some of the ridiculous amount of money that I spent on the book back. Instead of having to pay $5-$10 to send a single book, you can pay $2-$4 for it when you ask for media mail. Note that this is a service only offered at the counter during regular hours - most automated machines don't give this option.

Packaging - If you wait until you get to the post office to get your packaging, you're probably screwed. Reuse old boxes and buy plain, reinforced or padded envelopes at an office or grocery store. If you go to the post office and grab one of their red, white, and blue priority or express boxes/envelopes that are so conveniently sitting in the lobby, you must send it by the service stated on the box. When reusing old boxes, cross out all of the old barcodes and take off the old labels if possible.

Extra services - Only pay for extra services if you really think you'll need them. I've never had a problem with any packages and I've never paid for delivery confirmation, insurance, return receipt, or anything like that.

I hope this has helped, but if you still don't understand your options, try reading "A Customer's Guide to Mailing", found at the USPS website. Pass on some postal knowledge to a friend and maybe we can make the whole process go a little bit more smoothly!