More flats glitches—on the barcode front

More flats glitches—on the barcode front – Updates

Barbara Love

Publishers and printers are doing everything possible to ensure that magazines are properly barcoded to qualify for lower postage rates. Meanwhile, the USPS’s new system for verifying barcodes, dubbed Merlin, is proving to be no wizard when it comes to performing its job on magazines and other flats.

The USPS is in the process of installing Merlin equipment throughout the country to verify barcodes on letters and flats and make “postage adjustments” for errors found in barcode readability. Publishers and other mailers have been supportive of the initiative, which is aimed at reducing lost postal revenue.

Merlin seems to be adequately handling letters: It was implemented to verify all letter barcodes as of February 15, on schedule. But a series of problems has caused postponement of the machine’s application in reading barcodes on flats. In tests, it’s been discovered that barcodes on numerous flats are erroneously being judged non-readable, and rejected for discounts, as a result of improper feeding into equipment, inconsistent application of Domestic Mailing Manual (DMM) rules and various complications in reading barcodes on polybagged pieces.

In mid-February, a Mailers Technical Advisory Committee joint Merlin work group consisting of printers and USPS representatives was formed to address processing issues, how samples are selected and how printers handle and distribute flats. While acknowledging that these issues have been of concern for more than a year, Joe Schick, director of postal affairs for Quad Graphics and past chairman of MTAC, says that the USPS is committed to resolving the problems to mailers’ satisfaction. Schick predicts that progress will be made within one to two months.

“If it turns out that Merlin won’t work for flats, we’ll have to find another way to gauge the quality of how this mail is prepared, verified and accepted,” Schick says. “For instance, maybe Merlin can be used as a diagnostic tool for the industry and the USPS.” Schick says that he has advised his clients that there is no reason for concern at present about delivery slowdowns or cost errors, although he has reiterated the need to adhere to existing flats requirements, such as allowing sufficient space for the address and barcode.

Training is one issue that will need to be tackled. “If you ask 100 clerks questions about Merlin, you’ll get 100 different answers,” says Schick. According to PostCom, members regularly report that clerks can’t answer the simplest of questions regarding Merlin test procedures and policies.

Meanwhile, the USPS is proceeding with installation of Merlin at printing plants. And, despite assurances that the problems will be worked out, some printers say that they’re worried that insufficient postal clerk training and understanding of magazine printing operations could affect schedules and earned discounts. According to one printing executive, the verification tests as currently planned would take place after barcodes have been put on the flats, meaning that pallets and sacks would have to be broken up with no acceptance of responsibility for proper repackaging of magazines. An executive at another printer that handles 200 magazines says that the USPS has indicated that it will install one Merlin machine at this plant, which will be operated by one postal clerk with three hours of training. This printer estimates that verifying magazine barcodes without impacting operations would require four machines and 24 people with six months of training. “The USPS doesn’t understand the complexity of what we m ail,” he says. If the operational issues aren’t adequately addressed, he worries, “Magazines will be piled up all over the place waiting to be tested.”

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