Like most small-business tools these days, the venerable postage meter is going virtual.
Business document and mailing giant Pitney Bowes, facing growing competition from virtual mail solutions from Stamps.com, Endicia, eBay and even the U.S. Postal Service, has finally beefed up its own Internet-based shipping service.
The company, based in Stamford, Conn., has launched an online mailing tool called pbSmartPostage, with accounts starting at $15 per month. Postage and supplies are extra. The tool seeks to integrate postage, package routing, shipping management and reporting into a Web app that can be accessed from any PC with a printer.
Getting shipping costs under control is critical for small businesses. As a technology columnist, I'm always receiving products for testing, then shipping them back, running what amounts to a small retail store. So I arranged for a demo account with Pitney Bowes and have been giving pbSmartPostage a test run for the past several months.
What It Is
As advertised, bSmartPostage is a Web-based mailing and shipping application that puts a virtual postal service location on your desktop computer. The interface runs from a Web browser, but only Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Mozilla's Firefox are supported. Users of other browsers like Google Chrome and Apple's Safari browsers are out of luck. The software lets users fill out online forms to track company shipping, create labels, print stamps, manage a sophisticated address book and generate shipping reports. A scale is not required, but I'd recommend using one. Pitney Bowes sells a line of scales, which usually connect directly to its software through a USB connector.
Why You Might Like It
A clean and easy way to manage sophisticated shipping.
Pitney Bowes' expertise in shipping is evident with this product. The software is well-organized. Creating a shipping label is straightfoward: Connect the supplied scale to a PC, weigh your package and the software grabs the weight. Then measure your parcel, enter your shipping information and select your shipping options. Finally, the program prints a shipping label, complete with postage, using any desktop printer. Bulk discounts on postage are available.
Powerful features at a reasonable cost.
Pitney Bowes competes with shipping and postage products like those from Endicia that do not charge monthly service fees. So the company loaded this program with a number of business-friendly add-ons to justify the $15 montly cost. The reports section, for example, creates sophisticated print-outs of what you shipped and when. It also checks addresses nicely, confirms your destinations and guides you through the process of shipping.
Assuming your business is already paying for some sort of postage meter or mailing system, pbSmartPostage is a reasonable option.
Why You Might Not Like It
Simple, low-cost tools replicate much of what pbSmartPostage does.
Though by and large not as sophisticated as this Pitney Bowes product, many other shipping options are available for small firms. For example, the USPS Shipping Assistant is an excellent application that creates a high-quality mailing label. eBay also prints up adequate labels and postage. Stamps.com is also serviceable, and even peripheral makers like Dymo offer robust postage options from Endicia.
And remember, you are paying a minimum of $15 per month for pbSmartPostage, $17 if you lease a scale. Blank stamps run about six cents each. If you need a bigger scale, say a 70-pounder, that's $106. A slick thermal printer is $209, and labels can run $20 per roll. So the costs associated with the service can add up fast.
Related: Shipping 101
Given that shipping is usually part of a larger logistics strategy for your firm, many rival, lower-cost solutions might actually work better for your particular business. For example, Stamps.com integrates well with Microsoft Word and Outlook, which may make it a good shipping solution for many shops. And, the lack of support for Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome browsers could be a dealbreaker for some users.
Just because Pitney Bowes has the reputation as the smart choice for traditional postage meters doesn't mean it's the best choice for a virtual one.
What To Do
If you need to mail business parcels and letters from a home, or have a remote office and don't want to mess with going to the post office, consider giving the service a try. But take the other options for a test spin as well. And don't be afraid to admit that they may work better for your particular business.