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Doing Postage from Home
This article has changed quite a bit since I first wrote it. Originally it was a comparison of various online postage services. However, one service was shut down and another started up, and it was too much work to keep abreast of all the changes. Now I simply give some general advice with some impressions of the various services that are available.
There are two main reasons why you may not want to go to the post office: (1) the post office isn't near or convenient, and (2) the post office is understaffed and the lines are long. Also, postal regulations do not allow you to drop packages in a mailbox weighing over 13 oz. unless they have metered postage on them. Whichever is your problem, here are your options for avoiding a trip to the post office.
Online Postage Services
It is now possible to print your postage and drop your packages in a mailbox. The best known online postage services are Endicia (www.endicia.com) and Stamps.com (www.stamps.com). Both of those companies have plans costing about $10 and $16 a month, with the more expensive plans having more features. (Stamps.com doesn't promote its $10 service, so you won't find information about it on their web site.) In both cases, you'll have to download a program onto your PC which will allow you to print stamps and/or envelopes or labels with postage on them. You must have a reasonably good printer that is capable of printing graphics in black-and-white (all ink-jet and laserjet printers can print basic graphics).
Typically, the $10 plan will have many advanced features stripped out of it. For example, the programs from both companies can send a customized shipping notification to your mail program. All you have to do is insert the customer's email address and click "Send". However, you'll find that feature only in the $16 plans. Also, the $16 plans can hide the postage amount on the label. Thus, if you charged your customer $6 to mail a package, but the postage amount is $1.69, hiding the postage amount may save you from receiving a complaint.
Pitney-Bowes also has a $16 plan call pbSmartPostage. pbSmartPostage is a "cloud" service, meaning that you don't have to install a program on your computer. Rather, you do everything through your browser. This has the advantage that you can print postage when you are away from your own computer. They don't have a $10 plan. (Pitney-Bowes ignored two emails that I sent them asking if they had a $10 plan; I take that as an indication that the customer service may not be so good. I finally had to call them on the phone to get an answer.)
The United States Postal Service also has its own service, called Click-n-Ship, which is available on their web site at www.usps.com. Click-n-Ship is "cloud" based; it doesn't require you to download a program onto your computer. Rather, it utilizes a Java script which works with your browser. Click-n-Ship has limitations that the other services don't: You can't use it to print either First Class or Parcel postage. You can use it only for Priority and Express Mail. Also, the interface is not as fast and streamlined as the other services, and you must use a full sheet of paper (or a sheet label with two labels on it) for each package you send (with the other services, you can use smaller labels). The advantage of Click-n-Ship is that it is free (i.e., you don't pay a fee, only the postage amount). You'll need a credit or debit card to use Click-n-Ship.
An advantage of using these online postage services is that you can get Delivery Confirmation either free or for a considerable discount. Delivery Confirmation, which makes your packages trackable, is a considerable advantage. However, one disadvantage of using online services is that you can lose postage if your printer malfunctions. (Endicia, however, has many safeguards against that. You can reprint a label, and you can also get a refund if it includes a Delivery Confirmation bar.) Also, you must have a postal scale -- although most of these services can provide you with a scale (for a fee). An additional disadvantage of online postage (or any kind of metered postage) is that you must mail the package on the date indicated in the postage.
Since I use Endicia, I am more familiar with their services than I am with the others. Basically, this is how it works: You open the program (Endicia's postage program is called Dazzle), and then you open the template that you want to use (envelope template, domestic or international label template, etc.). You then copy the destination address into the template, and then you print (the weight of the package is indicated in the print box). It's fairly easy. The only difficulty with Endicia is if you decide to use a label template that is not supported. Most of the label templates are designed for sheet labels that have two labels per sheet. If, like me, you want to use sheet labels that have four labels per sheet, you'll have to set up the template yourself, which can be a lot of work. The Stamps.com program probably works in a similar way to Endicia. Endicia also supports various specialized label printers (and Stamps.com probably does also).
I have a social and/or political reason for preferring Endicia to Stamps.com. Stamps.com has taken to promoting their service by sending out unsolicited CDs (compact discs) with their program on it. America Online did that for years -- sending out millions of CDs that ended up in landfills -- and it was terribly bad for the environment. I won't use any service that promotes its business in such a way.
Postage meters can be rented from several companies listed on the U.S. Postal Service web site for as little as $18 a month. At one time, meters were a great option, but online postage services are more flexible and cheaper (lower monthly cost, free Delivery Confirmation service, special Priority and Express Mail rates). Unless you mail a lot of letters and want a machine that you can stick an envelope into to get the postage, online postage is the way to go. If you do need a meter, Hasler (www.haslerinc.com) has a couple good meters, and they are cheaper than Pitney-Bowes.
If you are near to the post office but don't like to wait in line, your post office may have a postage kiosk which you can use. At the kiosk, you can buy stamps, buy postage for packages, and mail certified letters. You can get Delivery Confirmation at the kiosk, although you will pay full price for it. You must have a credit card or debit card in order to use the kiosk. Not everything can be done at the kiosk, however. You can't, for example, insure your packages (though you can still use your own private insurer). You also can't mail international packages that weigh over 13 oz. (such packages must be taken to the window). Also, you can't use the kiosk for Registered mail. One big disadvantage of the kiosk is that you can't mail simple letters that require only 46¢ postage – the minimum postage amount that the kiosk will sell is 50¢.
When I was in New York, the kiosk was very convenient for me. Since then, however, I've started using Endicia exclusively. One disadvantage of the kiosk is that it occasionally breaks; if you go to the post office and it isn't working, you'll have to wait on line.
Insuring Your Packages
Stamps.com and Endicia both provide parcel insurance from private insurers. I don't know about pbSmart-Postage. Click-n-Ship provides postal insurance, which is very expensive -- although it is now free for packages valued at $50 or less. My recommendation is that you use a private insurer, and the one I recommend is Shipsurance (www.shipsurance.com) (formerly called DSI). Shipsurance is the cheapest of the private insurers, and making a claim with them is far easier than making a claim at the post office. You can open a policy with Shipsurance, or you can use their "Single Parcel Shipper Program". With their Single Parcel program, you don't have to have a policy with them – you just go to their site and register your shipment, and pay the premium with your credit or debit card. Then, if the parcel is lost, you file a claim. If you decide to open a Shipsurance policy, you will either record all your shipments on their web site or you will email them a list of shipments every week (the list is generated by your postage program), and then they will bill you every month for your premiums. (Having now promoted Shipsurance, I should say that if you use the insurance coverage provided by Endicia, it will be less work overall.)
Please note that self-insuring your packages makes good sense. If you charge each customer $1 for insurance, and then pay any claims out of your own money, you are likely to come out ahead in the long run. But I don't recommend taking that risk with packages worth over $100.
I will add tips to this article as I think of them. If you have a particular postage problem, feel free to email me (my email address is on the home page) and I will try to find a solution for you.
- If your package weighs less than 13 oz., send it by First Class mail, as that is the most economical of all shipping methods for small parcels.
- First Class now has different rates for letters and parcels, so make sure you use the First Class parcel rate.
- For domestic parcels between 14 oz. and 4 lbs. (that aren't too thick), you can use a flat-rate Priority envelope or box. (The post office now provides a flat-rate envelope lined with bubble wrap, which is good if you are sending merchandise.)
- For international packages more than 1 lb. but less than 4 lbs., you can use a Priority flat-rate envelope or box (note, however, that Priority service to other countries has become very expensive in recent years). If your international package is less than 1 lb., use the First Class International rate, which is cheaper.
- All international packages carrying merchandise must have a green customs slip attached (form 2976 for shipments valued under $400, form 2976-A for shipments valued at $400 or more). However, Endicia (and probably Stamps.com too) has a label form that includes the customs form on it.
- International packages 13 oz. or less do not have to be taken to the window. Simply apply your postage (at the kiosk or with your online account), attach your customs form (the customs form is part of the label if you use online postage), and drop it in a box.