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Mailing Equipment

From postage meters to letter-folding machines, here's what you need to stock your mailroom.

There are a variety of mailing machines available on the market that can help you save time--so you can spend it on more important things, like growing your business.

Postage Meters
Buying your own postage meter saves a small business time and money. No more licking and sticking envelopes and stamps. With today's electronic mailing machines, you don't even have to stand in line at the post office to get your meter reset.

Electronic postage meters consist of a base through which envelopes are guided for stamping, which can be rented, leased or bought from a mailing equipment manufacturer; and a meter, which must be leased from a mailing equipment manufacturer. The faster and more automated the machine, and the more features it incorporates, the more it costs to rent, lease or own.

The primary difference between bases is how letters are fed through the machines. The least costly models require you to feed letters, one at a time, through a roller. More expensive models offer semiautomatic or fully automated letter feeding. Options for the base include stackers, which stack your mail, and sealers, which automatically wet and seal each envelope as it passes through the base.

Even the smallest office can benefit from a meter to determine exact postage and print out a stamp, and a scale to weigh mail. The USPS estimates accurate weighing can save customers up to 20 percent on mailings.

An efficient, automated mailing machine can also save hours of time if you handle direct mail or large mailings. Mail that's presorted and bar-coded bypasses many of the post office handling steps and is delivered 24 hours sooner than mail lacking automated preparation, according to the USPS. (And if you don't think a day makes a difference, consider the results of a study by market research firm The Gallup Organization and mailing equipment manufacturer Pitney Bowes. Their study found that 11 percent of executives surveyed at large and midsized companies said the net income of their businesses would jump 5 percent if they received payments one day sooner!)

The latest mailing systems are multifunctional, handling everything from printing, folding, stapling, inserting, sealing, labeling, weighing and stamping to sorting, stacking and putting on a wrapper or binder. Many interact with a computer so you can track exactly how, when and to whom orders are sent out. Some PC-based systems can be programmed to simultaneously handle different sized paper--checks, invoices, brochures--without stopping the machine to reset the equipment.

The most popular mailing equipment combines meters with electronic scales; other machines have additional capabilities such as automatic feed and envelope-sealing functions. Speeds can vary from 25 to 200 envelopes a minute.

Besides faster delivery time and the ease of resetting by telephone or computer, metered mail machines offer other benefits:

  • Postal accounting: Tracking and controlling money spent on direct mail, letters, parcel post, priority and express mail is easier. Because there is one dispenser with precise postage, accounting is streamlined and you know exactly how much postage remains in the meter.
  • Parcel post dating: If your third-class letters and packages are metered, the stamp date requires the post office to expedite those items on the date received, thereby providing better service on less expensive classes of mail.
  • Postmark ads: Postage meters not only print stamps on your mail, they can print an advertising message, too. Postmark ads can include your company logo and name, giving your company extra advertising exposure.

Postal Scales
Besides postage meters, the second crucial piece of mailing equipment most businesses need is a postal scale. Scales are sold in 5-, 10-, 30-, 100- and 200-pound capacities and can be purchased as stand-alone units or combined with a postage meter. A postal scale ensures that you're not paying more than you need to for your outgoing mail. What to look for when buying? Both electronic and manual versions are available. Because manual scales require you to read the postage amount, they increase the chance of human error. Electronic scales are more expensive, but their digital readouts reduce errors and ensure you get the most value from your scale.

Depending on the type, size and weight of letters and packages you'll be mailing, you may wish to look for a machine that lets you compare rates between various carriers, such as the U.S. Postal Service and Federal Express. You may also want a feature that automatically converts a ZIP code to the proper zone for calculating zone-dependent rates for carriers such as United Parcel Service (UPS).

Consider ease of use, especially if a number of people will be using the scale. Some models have easy-to-read keypads and user prompts. Consider the size of the weighing platform and maximum weight the machine can handle to make sure it can accommodate the types of packages you'll be sending. For shipments that exceed the scale's weighing capacity, look for a scale that will allow you to manually enter the weight for rate calculation.

If you need your scale to interface with a postage meter, you'll want to be sure the model you choose is compatible with your metering equipment.

Questions to ask the dealer:

  • What adjustments will need to be made to the scale if postage rates change? What charges are involved?
  • Does the scale offer alternative pricing options based on various postal classifications?
  • Does the scale have a password feature to help guard against unauthorized uses?
  • What are its size and weight limitations?
  • How should the machine be maintained?
  • What type of maintenance agreement is offered?
  • Does the scale offer rates for foreign mailings?
  • Does the scale offer rates for Federal Express and UPS?

Letter-Folding Machines
When you're preparing a promotional mailing, you may find yourself dealing with hundreds or thousands of letters or brochures. Folding letters yourself can be time-consuming; it's also unnecessary, thanks to today's letter-folding machines.

When buying a letter-folding machine, consider the volume the machine is capable of processing. Low-end equipment processes a few hundred pieces per hour; high-end equipment is capable of operating at speeds of 1,500 to 7,000 sheets per hour. Also, consider the types of fold the equipment can provide. Some of the possibilities are c-fold (standard letter), z-fold (accordion fold), double fold, single fold, right-angle fold and brochure fold.

Sheets are fed either through a friction feeder or a vacuum feeder. Friction feeders have a rubber wheel that pulls the sheets through; frequent use can cause this kind of feeder to wear out. Friction feeders can also smudge a newly printed document. Vacuum feeders, while sturdier and more effective for handling coated papers, can be substantially more expensive and are only available on high-volume letter-folding machines.

You may also want to buy a model that includes a batch counter or a total counter. Batch counters keep the machine from folding too many sheets together. Total counters tell you how many sheets have already been folded. You'll find a memory setting useful if you typically produce the same types of jobs on a regular basis. The memory setting allows you to enter the instructions for processing a particular type of job once, then call up that job whenever you need to apply the same parameters.

You should also check to see how the equipment handles paper jams. Better-designed machines can release rollers, giving you easier access to the problematic areas. Finally, you may want to consider a model with an inserter, which automatically inserts your documents into envelopes.

Questions to ask the dealer:

  • How many pieces can it process per hour?
  • Does the machine offer friction or vacuum feed?
  • What types of folds is the machine capable of?
  • How many sheets can it fold at once?
  • How effective is it at handling stapled sheets? (Many cannot handle this automatically and will require hand feeding.)
  • What counter features are available?
  • What types and sizes of paper can it handle?
  • How should the machine be maintained?
  • What type of maintenance agreement is offered?
  • Does it have an automatic feeder?
  • Does it have a memory setting?
  • How are paper jams handled?

Letter-Opening Machines
Letter-opening machines can greatly speed up the opening of mail. Some can process up to 600 envelopes per minute.

What to look for when buying? There are two types of letter openers: chadders and slitters. Chadders open envelopes by cutting one-eighth of an inch from the end. Slitters, while quite a bit more expensive ($1,000 or more), cut through the top seam of the envelope and reduce the risk of damaging the contents of the envelope.

Most models can handle standard #10 envelopes. More expensive models will accommodate different sizes and thicknesses of incoming mail. An automated feeder will send your mail through the machine; joggers will help settle the contents of the envelope so they don't get cut; counters let you count the number of pieces being processed.

Another feature you may find helpful is an automatic date-and-time stamp to help you keep track of when mail arrives. Because letter-openers are usually quite reliable, maintenance contracts are usually not required.

Questions to ask the dealer:

  • Does the opener use a chadder or a slitter?
  • What sizes of envelopes can the machine handle?
  • Does it have an automatic feeder? A jogger? A counter?
  • Can incoming mail be time-and-date stamped?

Lease or Buy?
Mailing equipment can be rented, leased or purchased outright. You may prefer to lease to conserve working capital, then upgrade equipment as your business grows. Renting is the easiest method because if you need to cut costs at any time, you simply hand the equipment back and walk away. If you're leasing, you're obligated to make all the payments specified in the lease. However, leasing offers advantages, including lower rates than renting and the ability to roll the lease over for upgraded equipment.

If a mailing equipment salesperson sells you on leased equipment that ends up being too sophisticated for your needs, some suppliers will purchase the competitor's lease and give you their own equipment. When shopping around for equipment, ask if there are any special promotions available before you sign.

Basic machines lease from about $25 to $35 per month, more sophisticated machines for $60 and up. Anything more expensive than that is usually best suited to large corporations. The average lease is for five years and can include maintenance and free postage refills; the average rental agreement is for one year.

Carefully read the contracts you're offered, and, if renting, make sure there's no mention of the word "lease." Also, always ask what options you have if you need to get out of a lease.

Make sure the company is postal-certified with the USPS. Salespeople should be knowledgeable about their industry and about the latest USPS regulations and rates, and they should ask you questions about your mailing process--how many boxes, how frequently you ship--so the equipment they recommend fits both your business and budget.

When shopping for mailing equipment, allow the salespeople enough time to make their pitch. The right mailing equipment can save you money, but only if you give the salesperson enough time to analyze your needs.

Source: Start Your Own Business

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