electronic postage – Buyers Guide
The easy way for SOHOs to ship
ELECTRONIC POSTAGE IS THE MOST revolutionary U.S. Postal Service technology since self-adhesive stamps. Created by software residing on your PC or a Web-based service, electronic postage (e-postage) can be bought online and printed with your own printer, and is a convenient alternative to running back and forth to your local post office. However, the strict USPS restrictions on printer quality for indicia (see the sidebar, “Guide to Indicia”), compatibility problems with some printers, vendor-added premiums to USPS postage prices, and other issues have prevented this innovation from becoming ubiquitous.
We tested three e-postage solutions and found there’s good news for the home-based professional: E-postage vendors are doing their best to make the process easier and less expensive. For instance, the turnaround time for a USPS license has been reduced to just a few hours; most products let you use existing electronic address books from applications such as Microsoft Outlook, Interact Commerce Corp.’s Act, and FrontRange Solutions’ GoldMine; all the products check current addresses and rates against existing USPS databases; and all can help you avoid wasting money on unusable postage. Even better, many services let you try out their solution for free and even provide free postage incentives for regular users.
We tested our e-postage solutions on a 466MHz Celeron-powered Hewlett-Packard Pavilion desktop PC and Xerox DocuPrint P8 multifunction peripheral (MFP), as well as a 233MHz Pentium-powered Compaq Presario PC and older HP LaserJet Series II printer. Though getting started wasn’t always simple (we suffered from mangled envelopes, compatibility issues, and setup problems), we found that electronic postage is often an efficient, welcome way for home-based workers to send out business correspondence, direct marketing, and packages.
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Pitney Bowes’ ClickStamp Online was the weakest of the products we tested, mainly because we spent most of our time on the phone with its technical support team. The software loaded and ran slowly, we got error messages frequently, and there were compatibility issues with our Xerox MFP.
To use the service, you download the ClickStamp application from the Pitney Bowes Web site. The pro gram will launch your Internet connection for installation, activation, printer tests, and postage purchases, as well as to check your addresses against the USPS database, so you’ll have to be online when you want to use the product.
The software interface is more confusing than it should be, though it’s fine for simple tasks. To calculate postage for a piece of mail, you use the Postage Calculator, which asks for the weight of the piece (you’ll have to enter it manually) and class of service (there are 16 options, including First Class, Priority Mail, Express Mail, and Library Mail). The Special Services tab helps you factor in additional money required for things like insured and certified mail, but you’ll still have to get forms for these at the post office.
Creating envelopes with indicia and addresses was no problem. We typed our return address and destination right on the graphical envelope, then grabbed addresses from our Microsoft Outlook address book (you can also build one or use GoldMine or Act). Printing sheets of labels was easy; you can even print a sheet of labels using multiple addresses. We liked the fact that we could print test envelopes to avoid wasting postage, and that we could add messages and images to our envelopes, as well as access ClickStamp’s features from within Microsoft Word.
Adding postage to our account was a snap. Click Tools/Refill Postage Meter, enter an amount, and your account is credited. You get 30 days of free service with the download, after which it’s $1.49 per month on top of your postage fees. Still, if you can get it to work, this is an inexpensive, no-frills service for people interested in trying electronic postage.
(A) Good integration with office software
(B) Too many technical problems to use
ClickStamp Online Rating: 6
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Simply Postage’s PROmail is a hybrid product made up of a software application and a postage meter with a stamp printer tacked on. The printer itself works something like other popular label printers: It connects to your PC via a USB or serial cable (both are included).
We had a difficult time getting the unit recognized by our PC because we had new software, old documentation, and a missing driver. Technical support was quick and helpful in tracking down our problem and getting us up and running.
Once we started working, PROmail was simple to use, but the application is more Limited in scope than many of its competitors. PROmail doesn’t print return and recipient addresses or media, for instance, only stamps.
The program’s simple interface contains a half dozen icons–three for maintenance tasks like buying postage online and three for your postage-dispensing options. You can print a 33-cent stamp, grab a weight from the scale, and select a class for your postage total, or enter your own stamp amount and rate class. Click Print, and your stamp is ready to affix to your envelope or package. When you want to buy more postage, you visit the Simply Postage site and add more to your account.
PROmail costs $50 for the starter kit (including hardware), and $14.95 a month thereafter for unlimited postage. And don’t forget–you have to buy postage rolls regularly. PROmail isn’t for everyone, particularly the busy home-based worker who needs to automate mass mailings and other bulk correspondence.
(A) Easy to use; comes with all the hardware you need
(B) Forget addresses, PROmail prints only stamps
PROmail Rating: 6
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Stamps.com was our overall favorite, both for ease of setup and accessibility of software.
Stamps.com is a software and Internet service; after downloading the software, you connect to the Internet whenever you need to use the application’s postal services. Stamps.com defaults to its own address book, though you can import .CSV address files from Microsoft and Lotus office applications.
The main software screen is neatly arranged and clearly labeled. When we wanted to mail a package or letter, we typed the return and recipient addresses in boxes at the top of the screen. We then clicked on a drop-down menu to pick the mail piece type–letter, large envelope, postcard, package, and pre-addressed envelope.
You can also select the type of media you want to use (for example, envelopes and shipping labels), then enter weight, mail class, and Special Services. For the latter, Stamps.com presents an explanation of services such as certified mail and insurance, tells you what form you need to fill out (your starter kit contains some), and calculates and prints the correct postage.
Special circumstances are displayed in a dialog box. You can postdate mailing pieces and add extra postage, as well as drop in a graphic and change the address font to any font on your system. Word and Outlook are supported.
Two service plans are available: The Simple Plan charges you a fee of 10 percent of postage printed, with a $4.49 minimum and 29-day free trial; the Power Plan is $15.99 a month for unlimited postage. New customers also get $20 worth of free postage and a free digital scale. The pricing plans are complicated, but the service is exceptional.
(A) Well-designed software; solid value and service
(B) Pricing plans dizzying; you need to be on the Net
Stamps.com 2.2 Rating: 8
HOME OFFICE COMPUTING rates products on a scale of 1 to 10–with few 9% or 10’s–based on value, performance, innovation [medals go to rare standouts in these areas], ease of use, and suitability for home offices. The (A) and (B) symbols indicate pros and cons.
PRODUCT PRICE VENDOR
CLICKSTAMP ONLINE Free download; Pitney Bowes
$1.49 per month 800-390-0297
PROMAIL $50 for starter kit; Simply Postage
$15 per month 877-397-8267
unlimited postage www.simplypostage.com
STAMPS.COM 2.2 $16 per month for Stamps.com
unlimited postage or 888-434-0055
10 percent of www.stamps.com
postage with $4.49
PRODUCT HARDWARE/SOFTWARE REQUIRED
CLICKSTAMP ONLINE Software download; Internet connection
PROMAIL Starter kit; software CD; postage meter and
stamp printer; Internet connection
STAMPS.COM 2.2 Software download; Internet connection
RELATED ARTICLE: GUIDE TO INDICIA
For all of the differences among these three products, there’s one thing they have in common: The need for absolute accuracy of their information-based indicia. This is the barcode that’s printed on your envelopes or labels that contains critical information for shipment.
More than just a stamp, these indicia actually contain several pieces of information: the postage amount, place of origin, device ID or type, mailing date, and rate category. This data–and other identifying information–can be scanned and authenticated by USPS equipment nationwide. This unique identification serves to detect tampering or duplication, as well as track pieces of mail.
Once you’ve printed indicia, be sure to get the parcel it’s attached to down to the post office the same day. Unlike regular stamps, you must mail your processed mail on the date the indicia reads, or it’s no good. You can always plan for this by postdating future mailings.
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COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group