With the dawn of a century comes new innovations in manifest mailing capable of lowering stress levels, increasing shipping productivity and improving efficiency � all with an economical click of the keyboard. Sound too good to be true? While it is not science fiction, the U.S. Postal Service�s new Web-based manifesting program has all the intriguing elements of a great hi-tech success story.
Just a Beginning
Of course, manifest mailing has been available for some time. An automated manifest mailing system (MMS) allows shippers to document postage and fees for all pieces in a specific mailing and pay for that mailing via a permit imprint. In other words, no actual postage, such as stamps or a metered strip, is attached to a package. Charges are paid through a Permit Imprint Advance Deposit Account, a payment method that is set up with the Postal Service.
Manifest mailing allows customers to move faster within their shipping operations because it eliminates the extra steps of affixing postage. Such automated systems are sophisticated and can track everything from carrier performance analysis to customer chargeback codes. These capabilities and their conveniences come at a price, however. Often customers who require a higher end shipping system will have to invest $5,000 or more for the software. Ongoing maintenance and management of the system accrues additional costs. This is where Web-based manifesting comes into play.
Taking It to the Net
The U.S. Postal Service, working in conjunction with software developer Kewill, now offers a manifest mailing system through the Internet. The unique aspect of the system is that the software is available on the server, giving many customers access to the same software, which in turn spreads the cost among all users.
Besides eliminating the large, up-front capital investment by the customer, Web-based manifesting has many other advantages. Because the software is not on-site, the customer does not have to worry about maintaining the system, which also results in reducing dedicated resources to the project. In addition, customers are not responsible, from an information services standpoint, for dealing with upgrades or any compliance rule changes that may occur. Perhaps most importantly, the system model is �repeatable,� meaning the basic interface of the manifest can apply to both large and small customers.
�The key is that it provides infinite scalability,� states Jim Shriner, director of Business Development for Kewill. The software developer has been working with the U.S. Postal Service since February to fine-tune the new program. �This really is the first-ever Web-based implementation for shipping,� notes Shriner, �and gives the USPS and its clients services comparable to the competition.�
Within a shipping operation, customers often demand the ability to rate shop between carriers for the best price. The new Web-based manifest system has multi-carrier capabilities and can easily accommodate rate shoppers. Besides producing all the required manifest documentation, the system can also present the correct compliance documentation required by a specific carrier. All this and delivery confirmation, too!
Wal-Mart Jumps at the Opportunity
Wal-Mart was one of the first USPS customers to use the Web-based manifesting system since it was rolled out earlier this year. Wal-Mart currently uses the service solely for shipping parcels from its Jewelry Repair Department to all of its stores. The program is deployed through three browser-based workstations at the retailer�s corporate headquarters.
Each day, Wal-Mart packages are scanned, the first step in shipping preparation. This in itself is a time-saving innovation unique to the Web-based manifesting system. Its former system required the shipper to type in a code for information on packages intended for a specific store. The USPS system scans a barcode that instantly reads package IDs con-taining the necessary four-digit store number. Scanning not only speeds up the process, but also improves accuracy, since it eliminates keying errors and the possibility of having packages misrouted.
After package scanning, the data is sent via the Internet to the server, located at a data center in Massachusetts. The information is instantaneously processed and sent back to Wal-Mart, where the mailing label and USPS Delivery Confirmation barcode labels are then printed. These detailed labels include the individual store�s ID number, store address, the postage imprint and permit number and the Delivery Confirmation barcode and tracking number.
The system will also deliver end-of-day reports, which enable Wal-Mart to produce a manifest and postage documentation. The report is an overview of the day�s activity and includes store IDs, the day, date and time a package was prepared, the shipping status and the price to ship.
Meanwhile, the Delivery Confirmation data is also uploaded to postal servers each day. When the packages are delivered, USPS sends a file back to the server. The server then updates the performance history of the packages, tracks the delivery and gives the status of each, which allows shippers and customers to verify their shipments � not a bad day�s work for a browser and a printer.
Quick and Easy Implementation
Another advantage to using the system is the cost-effective user fees � a per-transaction fee at about 1� per transaction. There is also a small hook-up or integration fee required. Integration depends on the customer�s host system and can range from easy to complex. According to Jim Shriner, an infrastructure is currently in place that allows customers to be up and running with a Web-based manifesting program within three days. �It takes approximately an hour to create a program for the client,� he explains, �but then we have to run a thorough series of tests.�
Once installation is complete, customers will find the program very user-friendly. �We provide an administration module to shippers that helps them learn how to run the program with the browser,� says Shriner. �I believe it must work well because we haven�t had to go onsite to train anyone yet.�
What the Future Holds
�When we asked our Expedited/Package Services Group to help us find a solution for Wal-Mart, we never imagined it would be a Web-based manifesting application,� says Sue Farris, USPS national account manager for Wal-Mart. �They are very happy with the speed and functionality of the system. Adding carton-level detail (CLD) will only serve to improve the system�s efficiency. Walmart.COM is coming on board now after seeing the system in action,� adds Farris. �They saw something they liked, and we�re pleased to have these kinds of solutions to offer our customers.�
While this may seem to be the ultimate manifest mailing program, the Postal Service and Kewill are already looking toward future enhancements to the system. They plan to add a module that would enable shippers to track packages at the carton level.
CLD is the ability to associate the contents of a shipment with a parcel, not just a parcel with an order. The new module will allow shippers to log the contents of a parcel and store it on the system, associate the parcel with a shipment and tie the shipment to an order. This would be especially beneficial in the case of split shipments. For example, if a single order contained 20 items and these items were packed in five different parcels, the only way to receive the order would be to wait until all five parcels arrived, then unpack them and match the items to the order. Normally, if not all the items get there at the same time, the ones that reach the destination first are set aside until the rest of the shipment arrives. This can cause an inefficient backlog at the loading dock. The CLD feature associates the content with the parcel, making it possible to track it through the supply chain at an individual item level. It is designed so that goods may be received as soon as they arrive, since the receiver knows the contents and can accept the parcel immediately. Wal-Mart plans to implement CLD this summer.
The future has arrived! Web-based manifesting is one of the hottest topics for shippers today and is gaining momentum. Four to eight other software vendors are expected to offer the service, complete with multi-carrier capabilities, by summer�s end. Look for more on this cutting-edge shipping technology coming soon to a browser near you!
John Medeiros is marketing specialist with the U.S. Postal Service Expedited/Package Services Group. For more information, visit www.usps.com.