FREQUENT TRIPS TO THE post office have always been a necessary yet time-consuming chore of doing business. But now, whether you use traditional mail for direct marketing, shipping packages, or simply paying bills, you can save time and gas money by using new electronic stamps and digital postal meters designed for small businesses and home offices.
Both types of products increase efficiency by making it first and easy to obtain postage and to add that postage to letters and packages. We looked at two of the first electronic-stamp products to be released, by E-Stamp and Stamps.com, and two state-of-the-art postal meters, Neopost’s Simply Postage and Pitney Bowes’s Personal Post Digital Postage Meter.
All four products require you to apply to the United States Postal Service (USPS) to receive postage electronically. After establishing an account, you can buy postage with the click of a button on your PC screen or on the postage meter. All the products then connect to a remote server to complete your purchase. Information such as how much postage you have remaining from your last purchase is stored on your PC, in a postage meter, or on the Internet, depending on which tool you’re using.
With the electronic-stamp products and Simply Postage, you set the amount of postage, the class of service (such as first class or parcel post), and other shipping details through simple PC interfaces. The products then print postal indicia on either envelopes or labels. Like bar codes, indicia contain all the machine-readable information the USPS needs to process your mail. Pitney Bowes’s digital Personal Post prints a more traditional postmark, and has no software component.
To test these new solutions, we established accounts with each of the vendors, applied to the USPS, and prepared postage for a variety of package and letter types. We also set up mass mailings with the products that supported them.
Each product type has its benefits. We find postage meters simpler to use because they aren’t as weighed down by USPS regulations (see the sidebar “Going Postal”). However, electronic stamps let you use built-in address books to simultaneously print address labels and postage to many recipients in a single operation, making them more efficient for bulk mailings.
Both types of products offer different pricing schemes. Depending on your usage, one may be more or less expensive for you. Since prices are competitive, weigh your options and match a product to your specific needs.
E-Stamp ($50 dongle rental, plus fees; 650554-8454, www.e-stamp, com) is one of a new breed of products that enables you to purchase postage directly over the Internet. This electronic-stamp service is really a dual solution, consisting of software and a dongle that connects to your PC’s parallel port. The dongle is about half the size of a deck of cards and stores information about your account. After connecting the hardware dongle to the parallel port, you connect your printer cable to the dongle to print your stamps.
When we first launched the software, E-Stamp displayed dialog boxes that guided us through the USPS application process. The program requested basic information, such as our name, address, and how we preferred to pay (the USPS accepts credit cards and electronic funds transfers). Don’t be intimidated by the onscreen warnings of possible wait time; we received permission within a day of application.
E-Stamp’s interface is well-organized–all the elements you’ll use are readily available. It’s easy to get started, too: You click on buttons to select the class of service and envelope size, then type in your parcel’s or envelope’s weight. The program calculates the postage and gets you ready to print. By the time you read this, E-Stamp is scheduled to be selling a scale that attaches to the dongle, to save you from having to enter the item’s weight manually and risk insufficient postage.
To buy more postage, you simply click on a toolbar button; the system then uses your Internet connection to tap the company’s server, which has USPS approval to sell postage. Clicking on another button prints simple reports about how much postage you’ve purchased and used.
We typed addresses one at a time and used an address book to print several envelopes and labels with different addresses. E-Stamp verified all the addresses and showed a preview image of each piece of mail, including address and indicia, before giving us the option to print.
Unfortunately, we think E-Stamp botched the address book in this initial release. The program uses the address book included with Windows Messaging, an e-mail ” client which, in turn, is included with Windows. However, Windows Messaging doesn’t come preinstalled as part of Windows 98, so you must find your Win 98 CD-ROM and install it yourself. If you don’t, you won’t have an address book. An E-Stamp spokesperson says the company is fixing the problem.
Unlike Stamps.com, which provides free software, you must pay for E-Stamp. However, unlike its rival, E-Stamp doesn’t require that you be connected to the Internet to print postage, which makes it a good choice if you have a low-bandwidth dial-up link instead of a cable or DSL modem.
Personal Post Digital Postage Meter
If the name Pitney Bowes conjures up images of hand-cranked postage meters, you haven’t seen the venerable company’s cutting-edge Personal Post Digital Postage Meter ($19.75 per month; 800-574-8639, www.pitneyworks.com). Formerly known as Personal Post Office, this was the most difficult product in this roundup to set up, but proved quite easy to use.
Before using this hardware-only system, we were forced to perform several minor tasks, such as inserting the printhead; attaching the included scale; and setting the time, date, and account information. We found this process to be more time-consuming than with the other products reviewed here, which require little or no hardware setup. Also, Personal Post relies on cryptic messages on a small LCD display, rather than a software interface on your PC’s monitor.
Another downside, at least compared to the other products, is the unit’s bulk. The meter is roughly the size of a fax machine, making it inconvenient for small home offices where PCs, printers, and scanners already battle for desk space.
But if you have the room, Personal Post is a joy to use. It took us no time to feed envelopes into the device and get back postmarked letters–keep in mind that the unit prints only postmarks, not addresses, and only on envelopes, not labels.
To purchase more postage, you press a button, use the keypad to enter the amount you want, and the unit uses an internal modern to log on to a private server. Postage is stored within the unit.
Although Simply Postage, the other hardware-based device, takes up less space and is easier to set up, Personal Post doesn’t require the power of your PC. It’s a good solution for high-volume mailing environments and home businesses that don’t want to tie up a PC.
Neopost’s Simply Postage ($50, plus fees; 877-397-8267, www.neopost.com) is a cross between the classic postage meter, and the new Internet stamp solutions. It consists of PC software; a small, freestanding printer that prints USPS indicia; and a connected scale.
Initially, you purchase the software and install it, following onscreen prompts to sign up for USPS approval. After our approval, which took about two days, Neopost sent us the printer and scale (for which we waited an additional two days). We then plugged the printer into our PC’s serial port and the scale into the printer, and we were ready to go.
Simply Postage isn’t bound by the same USPS regulations as electronic-stamp products, so it doesn’t verify addresses. In fact, it doesn’t print addresses at all–it just prints indicia on labels or envelopes.
The software interface offers buttons on which you click to create stamps. After selecting a class of service and placing our mail on the scale, the correct amount of postage appeared in the stamp-creation dialog box. We then clicked on a second button to print out the correct indicia. The whole process took just a few seconds.
If you want to order additional postage, click on an onscreen button, type in the amount, and click on another button. The system direct-dials a server and downloads more postage, charging your credit card or using a direct debit from a checking or savings account. Rather than store postage on the Web or in its own hardware, Simply Postage stores it on your PC’s hard disk, something true electronic stamp products cannot do.
Simply Postage was the simplest to use of all the small-office postage products and, compared to Personal Post, it takes up little space. The only caveat: You must buy proprietary labels from Neopost.
Rather than use a hardware device or your PC to store account information, Stamps.com (free setup, plus fees; 310-581-7200, www.stamps. com) stores it on the company’s secure Web servers. This requires you to connect to the Web whenever you want to print postage.
The benefit to this approach: Since address verification data and postage are also stored on the Web, you needn’t have a verification CD-ROM in your drive before you print postage, as is the case with E-Stamp. The downside: Web connections in many home offices often share phone lines with voice calls.
After installation, the Stamps.com software walked us through the steps of applying for USPS permission and, like its rivals, expedited the process. Its main software interface consists of five buttons that bring up screens and dialog boxes for tasks such as accessing your address book and account information, printing postage, and purchasing more postage.
Conveniently, Stamps. com verified addresses and zip codes only once–when we added them to its address book. That means you must be connected to the Internet when you add addresses, but the program doesn’t demand that you verify addresses when you create postage. You can import data in comma-delimited format or capture addresses within Microsoft Word.
From the address book, you can select as many recipients as you like. From another dialog box, you select a class of service and specify whether you’re printing labels or envelopes. Like E-Stamp, Stamps.com has decided to sell a parallel-port scale that calculates the correct postage. The scale was available for $50 at press time. Whether you find Stamps.com satisfying to use depends partly on your telephone service. If you use a single line for both voice and data, or have slow Internet access, you won’t like Stamps.com. If that’s not a problem, Stamps.com is the best new electronic-postage solution.