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Mailing Equipment

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

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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

PostageMeters
Buying your own postage meter saves a small business time andmoney. No more licking and sticking envelopes and stamps. Withtoday's electronic mailing machines, you don't even have tostand in line at the post office to get your meter reset.

Electronic postage meters consist of a base through whichenvelopes are guided for stamping, which can be rented, leased orbought from a mailing equipment manufacturer; and a meter, whichmust be leased from a mailing equipment manufacturer. The fasterand more automated the machine, and the more features itincorporates, the more it costs to rent, lease or own.

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

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

An efficient, automated mailing machine can also save hours oftime if you handle direct mail or large mailings. Mail that'spresorted and bar-coded bypasses many of the post office handlingsteps and is delivered 24 hours sooner than mail lacking automatedpreparation, according to the USPS. (And if you don't think aday makes a difference, consider the results of a study by marketresearch firm The Gallup Organization and mailing equipmentmanufacturer Pitney Bowes. Their study found that 11 percent ofexecutives surveyed at large and midsized companies said the netincome of their businesses would jump 5 percent if they receivedpayments one day sooner!)

The latest mailing systems are multifunctional, handlingeverything from printing, folding, stapling, inserting, sealing,labeling, weighing and stamping to sorting, stacking and putting ona wrapper or binder. Many interact with a computer so you can trackexactly how, when and to whom orders are sent out. Some PC-basedsystems can be programmed to simultaneously handle different sizedpaper--checks, invoices, brochures--without stopping the machine toreset the equipment.

The most popular mailing equipment combines meters withelectronic scales; other machines have additional capabilities suchas automatic feed and envelope-sealing functions. Speeds can varyfrom 25 to 200 envelopes a minute.

Besides faster delivery time and the ease of resetting bytelephone or computer, metered mail machines offer otherbenefits:

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

Postal Scales
Besides postage meters, the second crucial piece of mailingequipment most businesses need is a postal scale. Scales are soldin 5-, 10-, 30-, 100- and 200-pound capacities and can be purchasedas stand-alone units or combined with a postage meter. A postalscale ensures that you're not paying more than you need to foryour outgoing mail. What to look for when buying? Both electronicand manual versions are available. Because manual scales requireyou to read the postage amount, they increase the chance of humanerror. Electronic scales are more expensive, but their digitalreadouts reduce errors and ensure you get the most value from yourscale.

Depending on the type, size and weight of letters and packagesyou'll be mailing, you may wish to look for a machine that letsyou compare rates between various carriers, such as the U.S. PostalService and Federal Express. You may also want a feature thatautomatically converts a ZIP code to the proper zone forcalculating zone-dependent rates for carriers such as United ParcelService (UPS).

Consider ease of use, especially if a number of people will beusing the scale. Some models have easy-to-read keypads and userprompts. Consider the size of the weighing platform and maximumweight the machine can handle to make sure it can accommodate thetypes of packages you'll be sending. For shipments that exceedthe scale's weighing capacity, look for a scale that will allowyou 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 withyour metering equipment.

Questions to ask the dealer:

  • What adjustments will need to be made to the scale if postagerates change? What charges are involved?
  • Does the scale offer alternative pricing options based onvarious postal classifications?
  • Does the scale have a password feature to help guard againstunauthorized 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-FoldingMachines
When you're preparing a promotional mailing, you may findyourself dealing with hundreds or thousands of letters orbrochures. Folding letters yourself can be time-consuming; it'salso unnecessary, thanks to today's letter-foldingmachines.

When buying a letter-folding machine, consider the volume themachine is capable of processing. Low-end equipment processes a fewhundred pieces per hour; high-end equipment is capable of operatingat speeds of 1,500 to 7,000 sheets per hour. Also, consider thetypes of fold the equipment can provide. Some of the possibilitiesare 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 vacuumfeeder. Friction feeders have a rubber wheel that pulls the sheetsthrough; frequent use can cause this kind of feeder to wear out.Friction feeders can also smudge a newly printed document. Vacuumfeeders, while sturdier and more effective for handling coatedpapers, can be substantially more expensive and are only availableon high-volume letter-folding machines.

You may also want to buy a model that includes a batch counteror a total counter. Batch counters keep the machine from foldingtoo many sheets together. Total counters tell you how many sheetshave already been folded. You'll find a memory setting usefulif you typically produce the same types of jobs on a regular basis.The memory setting allows you to enter the instructions forprocessing a particular type of job once, then call up that jobwhenever you need to apply the same parameters.

You should also check to see how the equipment handles paperjams. Better-designed machines can release rollers, giving youeasier access to the problematic areas. Finally, you may want toconsider a model with an inserter, which automatically inserts yourdocuments 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 cannothandle 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-OpeningMachines
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 letteropeners: chadders and slitters. Chadders open envelopes by cuttingone-eighth of an inch from the end. Slitters, while quite a bitmore expensive ($1,000 or more), cut through the top seam of theenvelope and reduce the risk of damaging the contents of theenvelope.

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

Another feature you may find helpful is an automaticdate-and-time stamp to help you keep track of when mail arrives.Because letter-openers are usually quite reliable, maintenancecontracts 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. Youmay prefer to lease to conserve working capital, then upgradeequipment as your business grows. Renting is the easiest methodbecause if you need to cut costs at any time, you simply hand theequipment back and walk away. If you're leasing, you'reobligated to make all the payments specified in the lease. However,leasing offers advantages, including lower rates than renting andthe ability to roll the lease over for upgraded equipment.

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

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

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

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

When shopping for mailing equipment, allow the salespeopleenough time to make their pitch. The right mailing equipment cansave you money, but only if you give the salesperson enough time toanalyze your needs.

Source: Start Your Own Business

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