The USPS and some in the direct mail industry would have you believe that the IMB is a free Postal Service offering that is being provided as a response to the industry's demand to know where their mail pieces are in the mail stream. The new code is loaded with lots and lots of information about the who, what and where of your mailpieces and utilizes futuristic logic and technologies. How does the industry implement and take advantage of this amazing offering? And at what expense? Well, according to USPS officials, the mailing industry can embrace this remarkable advancement in as little as four steps. The USPS provides you with this information at no charge:

Steps to Create Your Intelligent Mail Barcode:
Step 1: Download and Install Encoder and Font
Step 2: Apply for a Mailer Identifier
Step 3: Populate the Barcode Fields
Step 4: Put Everything Together

Let's see, Step 1 can't be too difficult - downloading and installing an Encoder and Font actually sounds like it might be just as easy as loading any other computer update. And Step 2 is as simple as calling my MDA and I'll have my Mailer ID. No big problems there and no money spent.

Pesky Step 3: Populate the Barcode Fields
Reading Step 3 is a little disconcerting. I'll have to find some method of acquiring the logic to define my Barcode Identifier, Service Type Identifier, Mailer Identifier, Serial Number and Routing Code. Sounds like a lot of data. I am going to have to investigate what each of those terms represent. But, when I look at that Serial Number description, I am very happy to read that the USPS states there are a "variety of techniques" for me to use. Good news there. "Serial Number can uniquely identify the mailpiece. The mailer [that's me] determines the uniqueness method using a variety of techniques such as: serializing the mailpieces, embedding Julian date, embedding mailing event, using recipient identifier, using database or mailing record ID." Gosh, no need to worry there. After all, I have so many choices. Surely there is one of them that I can find to use that won't cost my company anything. And besides, upon reading further, I see that "Serial Number uniqueness is not required when qualifying for basic automation prices." So, I think I'll just place Step 3 to the side for the moment (won't need to look at it again unless I want to claim auto discounts anyway) and move onto Step 4: Put Everything Together.

But wait a second; if I don't have a unique serial number, I can't find out where my mailpiece is in the mail stream. Hmmmm - can't claim automation discounts and can't track the mailpiece without Step 3. Note to self - get definition of "mailing event;" find out how IT currently embeds this Julian date thing and tell Toto that I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.

OK, now onto Step 4: Put Everything Together. This will surely put me on the right track. "Once mailers have selected service(s) [yes, I can do that], received their Mailer Identifier [can get it-and it's free), and devised a unique Serial Number strategy [uh oh, I think they mean that pesky Step 3], they are ready to: 1) put all the data together along with routing information and the barcode ID to form the digit string; 2) encode it [was that a freebie download?] and; 3) apply the font [I know that's a freebie] to form the 65 bar Intelligent Mail barcode." Well, for goodness sakes - why didn't you just say so in the first place! Everything appears to be free and available on the USPS website well, everything except for that pesky Step 3.

To be very serious about a very serious issue -
When listening to or reading statements from USPS officials, members of the mailing industry get the impression that they are being provided with everything they need to incorporate this new technology into their business offerings. Direct mail experts state the IMB "will have a colossal, positive impact on the marketing and billing/accounting functions of the company, to say the least. This is because - contrary to the expectation of many - the single most important feature of the IMB is not the postage discount, but the ability to track individual transaction documents as they make their journey through the USPS delivery chain." That is the rhetoric. The reality of this statement is two-fold. First, the USPS has been mandated under Postal Reform to measure their delivery of the mail and to establish and (ultimately) meet delivery standards.

Second, the "industry" did not ask to know the whereabouts of each and every piece in a mailing as it moved through the mail stream. Certainly, all mailers would love to know where their mailpieces were if they could have the information at no additional costs - that means free. If there are costs associated with "knowing" the majority of mailers in the industry would settle for simply knowing through documentation when their mail is accepted and when it is delivered. As a matter of fact, if surveyed, I would dare say that most mailers would be perfectly happy to know the whereabouts of just the containers of their mail; trays, pallets, etc. Receiving information about when the container left the accepting unit and when it reached the delivery unit would suffice. But, incur significant internal expenses to find out where a mailpiece is in the mail stream? Not something the entire mailing industry wanted to pay for in the past - and certainly not something most mailers want to pay for in this economy.

So let's back away from this premise that the IMB is a result of customer demand or customer partnering. Now, I have no doubt that back when the IMB was first whispered in Mr. Potter's ear, there were some very big mailers who said they wanted to track the whereabouts of every mailpiece. And, I would bet money that four or five years later in 2009, most of those exact same big mailers are currently encouraging their own customers to save money in postage and pay their bills online or receive their statements electronically.

Eliminating Mailpiece Clutter
As far as the IMB saving you valuable real estate on your mailing label by embedding the barcode with endorsements, service requests, class markings, etc.; the reality is, if you read the fine print of the evolving IMB requirements, many of the markings like the OEL will still have to be printed on some classes of mail even with the IMB. And most all of the markings will have to appear if you print the Basic IMB. The only thing that IMB replaces in all scenarios is the POSTNET and PLANET barcodes. Saving all those lines in your address and clutter on the mailpiece appear to be a few years into the future, if ever.

IMB is Not Readable by the Human Eye
Distressing to many (including mail processors and letter carriers) is the fact that the IMB is not human-readable. The naked eye cannot distinguish a "good" IMB from a "bad" one. At least with the POSTNET symbology, you can know the ZIP+4 and DP are encoded properly. The check digit, frame bars, etc. (and you never thought that old party trick of deciphering the POSTNET barcode would come in handy). The IMB has all of this info embedded in it and no one knows what it says. Is this piece being mailed First Class or Standard - is it the Basic IMB or the Full IMB? Can't tell by looking at it. NOTE: Not even all MERLINs across the country can "read and validate" the IMB today.

And, because some MERLINs cannot "read and validate" the IMB today, the following scenario is played out at USPS processing centers in the country:
1. Trays of mail imprinted with an IMB are processed on a DPBS (Delivery Point Barcode Sorter) machine.
2. All of the mailpieces land in a reject output tray because they cannot be read by the DPBS.
3. The DPBS operator reruns the tray because they cannot visually identify any problem with the IMB.
4. Rerunning the pieces results in the pieces once again going to the reject tray.
5. The resident MDA (Mailpiece Design Analyst) is asked to look at the pieces. After analysis is performed, the MDA determines that the IMB did not have properly embedded delivery point information in the barcode.

Here's where it gets good.

6. The MDA contacts the facility where the mailing was originally accepted upstream four days earlier and notifies the Acceptance unit personnel that the mailing could not be processed on USPS DPBS machines.
7. Acceptance unit personnel of the originating post office contact the permit holder and notify them that their mail did not qualify for automation discounts and additional monies were now owed on the entire mailing. Pay up.

No, the mailer did not fail MERLIN, because the print quality, contrast ratios, bar heights, tilt, skew, etc. were all within acceptable limits in the IMB. Had the mailer printed the POSTNET barcode on the mailpieces, all automation discounts could have been claimed. I witnessed this scenario play out twice in recent months and in both instances, the mailings were said to be "VERY big" mailings.

There are two morals to this portion of the story.
First, don't be fooled by the appearance of an IMB on a mailpiece you receive today in your mailbox. You have no idea if the barcode was correct and, more importantly, you have no idea of the postage paid on that mailing. In the case of the IMB, appearance can be deceiving AND expensive.

The second moral is to sit back and wait until the dust and dollars settle on the issue of the IMB - Basic or Full. Unless of course, you are spending someone else's money and they have an endless supply of said money. I guess, in today's economy that could be one of the financial institutions on the receiving end of some bail-out monies who pass the expenses straight on through to the consumer.

Upgrading In-line or Handheld Scanners
Which brings up another point - if you can't tell by the naked eye if the IMB is properly embedded, that would mean some in the industry will have to invest more monies into updating their own scanner technology. Current inline or handheld scanners can tell you if your print quality and bar height and baseline, etc. are correct but scanner owners would be wise to check into the IMB read and verify ability of their equipment. Even if you have an in-house MERLIN, it will have to be updated to properly read the codes. What's your best guess as to who pays for those upgrades?

Business Dilemma for PAVE/CASS Software Developers
Now, let's take a look at the industry costs for mailing software. Most PAVE/CASS software vendors currently have the ability to produce the Basic IMB along with, of course, the POSTNET and PLANET barcodes. However, our software developers are now faced with a complex business decision: Write code to support the Full Service IMB or not. Their R&D costs will skyrocket if they are going to write the code into their program(s) that enables the industry to generate the Full IMB. Their licensing costs could also increase astronomically. Buried on page 37 of the 41 page rate fold held a bombshell for Confirm Service providers. The annual licensing fee that cost them $25,000 in 2008 for an unlimited number of scans was raised to $250,000 under the new rates of May 2009. I repeat: a quarter of a million dollars paid to the USPS as a licensing fee on an annual basis. How do you correctly price your product to get an ROI? The R&D on software development is typically amortized out over a period of years. But an annual fee that was just increased by almost 1,000% - how do you recover that in 12 months?

Do you charge the industry that much more for your product? Does your product just support the POSTNET and the Basic IMB and simply ignore support of the Full Service IMB? Do you eliminate services, features and capabilities that you used to provide? The industry needs to be aware of the fact that their PAVE/CASS software prices are going to increase. By how much? Time will tell. I would recommend that you stay in continual contact with your current PAVE/CASS provider and be aware of their plans for IMB support. Some developers may not be able to afford to support the Full IMB. Some of the smaller developers may decide that being a PAVE/CASS vendor is simply no longer economically feasible. 

In Part 2 of this series I will discuss more mailer IMB implementation costs. Specifically, those associated with PostalOne and Move Update issues. Also, Part 2 will provide a possible alternative solution to the currently proposed IMB.

Mary Ann Bennett is the President/CEO of The Bennett Group, Inc., Rochester, NY and can be reached at 585-424-2702 or