Sometimes its the little things in life that have the biggest impact. Thats proving especially true in the world of parcel shipping, where something as small as a label is able to influence, and will perhaps even change, the entire industry. The U.S. Postal Service is currently focusing on this little detail in order to bring its customers an even greater level of service.


A label, or more importantly how the information on that label is processed, can make the difference between a parcel that is delivered quickly and efficiently and one that may be delayed. Many shipping experts believe a crucial element to success lies in barcoding.


The B Team

Now, the Postal Service is focusing on parcels. In an effort to raise the level of customer service to shippers, the Postal Service has formed a barcode team that is examining ways to improve the quality of the barcode processing for parcels. The Barcode Team is working to standardize methods to ensure that quality barcodes are placed on each parcel, says Jim Cochrane, manager, Package Services. We want to make the system as reliable as possible and bypass some of the manual processes that can ultimately delay customers parcel deliveries.


This dedicated team decided to take a somewhat unconventional approach working from the inside out. First, we want to be sure we can improve the processes in-house so as not to impose any unnecessary changes on our customers, continues Cochrane, who has assigned nearly 20 experts to explore opportunities for parcel barcodes.


As part of the internal process, task force members have visited some of the 21 Postal Service bulk mail processing centers located across the country, where they were able to analyze the quality of barcodes and watch them go through processing. Based on what the team has observed, we now know where we have an opportunity to improve the quality of existing barcodes. We also realize that we need to significantly increase the number of barcodes on parcels prior to their entry into the mail stream, adds Cochrane.


Cochrane says that more than 70% of the mail the team sampled needed to have barcodes applied by the Postal Service, while about 29% of the parcels had barcodes placed on the pieces by shippers. Wed love to see those numbers switched around, he adds.


Once the stringent internal phase is complete, the team plans to ask mailers from various parts of the industry to participate in the process. Shippers will then have an opportunity to share their expertise and give the Postal Service input on barcodes. Finally, the team will interface with outside customers to see how well processing capabilities can match up with their typical parcels, which may prove to be the most sensitive part of the study.


Labels, a Sticky Situation

A parcel is defined by the Postal Service as a three-dimensional mailpiece contained in a box, thick envelope or tube, weighing up to 70 pounds. The length and girth (the distance around the thickest part of the package) cannot exceed 130 inches. Obviously, parcels can vary widely within this range, and the packaging material often differs extensively as well, all of which can affect parcel processing.


Take soft-packs for example, says Cochrane. Say you receive some type of merchandise, perhaps clothing, from a retailer. The item could be shipped in a soft, padded package. It may have a quality barcode, but because the package is not firm or rigid, the label could crumple during packaging, shipping or processing, making it difficult for the barcode scanners to read correctly. Cochrane also cites the common practice of wrapping packages in brown grocery bag or plain brown paper as another potential processing wrinkle literally. He says optimum barcoding conditions include a flat surface (no wrinkles or dips in the package) and the proper amount of reflectance and print contrast (designated addressing area) for the machine to be able to read the barcode.


Swift Shipping Solutions

Meanwhile, Cochrane says there are things shippers can be doing in the short term to ensure their parcels will be processed in the most efficient way. First, they must make sure they have the right barcode and that it is readable, he says. If they follow proper standards in the Domestic Mail Manual section C850, which are the official barcoding standards for parcels, their mail should be processed efficiently.


Cochrane also suggests shippers contact the district manager of Business Mail Entry to make sure they have the most accurate and readable barcode possible. The managers are located in each Postal Service district office across the country. They are trained in mailing standards and will be able to answer any barcode questions shippers may have. You can contact a manager of Business Mail Entry through your local postmaster.


Mark Your Calendar

The Postal Service offers discounts for shippers who place barcodes on their parcels. Cochrane wants to remind these customers of a very important upcoming deadline. In order for these customers to continue receiving the barcode discount, they must adhere to the new barcode standard UCC/EAN Code 128, he says. We want to ensure that the word is getting out there. For instance, if some shippers have stockpiled labels, they will need to reprint them with the correct barcode because after January 4, 2004, Postal Service machines will be programmed to read no other barcode except those that contain the UCC/EAN symbology.


No matter how you scan it, barcodes are bound to benefit parcel shippers. As for the Barcode Team and for the Postal Service, it all comes down to improved customer service. Our shipping customers want better service, and we want to provide them with the very best, says Cochrane. Proper use of barcodes allows the Postal Service to sort mailpieces more efficiently and accurately, according to Cochrane. In the long run, our success in controlling expenses will drive our success in stabilizing prices. Its going to be a win-win for everyone.


For more information about barcoding options or the U.S. Postal service, visit the Postal Service online at