Mail Houses and the Postal Process

mailhouse photoMail houses, sometimes referred to as "letter shops," are capable of providing the least expensive mailings possible, because they have the programs and technical know-how to process mail pieces designed to receive the largest "bulk rate" discounts offered by the US Postal Service.

There are requirements by both the Postal Service and the mail house with regards to the design of the mail piece and the dates and times needed for appropriately processing the mailing.

When Should You Use a Mail House?

From a purely financial perspective, a little math may help you determine if your mailer should be prepared by a mail house.

First determine the following costs:

  • Approximate minimum mail house charge (e.g. $400)
  • Bulk rate postage per piece (e.g. $0.18/piece)
  • Cost of First Class stamp per piece (e.g. $0.38/piece)

The cut off number can be calculated by the following formula.

Break even quantity = Minimum mail house charge/(difference between first class postage rate and bulk mail postage rate). 

Using the example figures above,

Break even quantity = $400/($0.38-$0.18) = 2,000

So in this example, 2,000 pieces is the point where it becomes smarter, money wise, to use a mail house rather than doing it yourself.

As a general rule, any mailing of less than 1,500 pieces should be hand stamped and mailed from within the campaign.

Keep Your Volunteers Busy?

There are still candidates who believe that keeping their volunteers busy stuffing envelopes and affixing stamps is a worthwhile endeavor. Frankly, we have observed a decline in volunteers who where faced with having to participate in this mind-numbing waste of their time.

Obviously, mailings of less than 2,000 or so pieces can be done quickly by volunteers and mailings like this are not so large that they would become boring to accomplish.

Bulk Mail "Permits"

A handful of political operatives obtain bulk mail "permits," and attempt to sort and mail themselves. Because of current Postal Service bulk mail bundling regulations, holders of such permits cannot get the best postage discount without also investing in proprietary subscription computer programs, and special printers and fonts, costing several thousands of dollars.

You simply cannot beat the benefits and savings of a mail house preparing your mailings.

Postal Processing of Political Mailings

Political mailings are handled differently by the Post Office than normal bulk mailings. If the Post Office looks at a mailer and determines it to be a true political mailing for a campaign, they will honor the "red tags" placed on the mailing by the mail house, which means that they will charge the bulk mail rate for the mailing, and the mailing will be processed "ahead" of normal bulk mail, but "behind" First Class. A different way of stating it is that political mailings will be given "preferential" treatment over normal bulk mailings. Remember that the piece must have a "political endorsement statement" identifying it as a political mailing.

In most instances, manpower allowing, political mail will be treated just like First Class mail, and the pieces will sometimes be delivered to households by the next day. More often, they will be delivered within two to three work days.

The Post Office has two weeks, or so, to deliver normal bulk mail after it is received at the distribution center.

The postal carriers themselves have lee-way in delivering political mailings. Their first obligation is to First Class mail. If they have a large amount of First Class mail to deliver, they have the option of postponing the delivery of political mailings for a day or more, or until they have the time and room in their truck and mail bag.

We have heard complaints from candidates that the Postal Service did not deliver mailings by election day even though they were allegedly mailed in enough time. Professionally, we have never seen this documented to our satisfaction. We are aware of some mailings that were not received until the day of, or day after, an election, but my sense is that this was more the fault of the mail house, or the campaign people responsible for the mailing, rather than the Post Office.

General Mail House Operations

Mail houses have delivery and processing requirements to which you need to pay attention. Most major mail houses require a lead time of at least 24 hours to process and deliver a mailer to the Post Office. There are specialized sortations and mail bundling, or packaging, a mail house performs in processing your mailer.

The mail house usually needs the entire day to process mailers, including yours. If you tell the mail house the piece will be delivered to them by 4:00 PM the day before, the mail house will put the job in a queue for the processing and delivery the next day. Very large mail houses may require an even longer lead period. Small mail houses may entertain your getting the mail piece to them by 9:00 AM in the morning of the requested drop. They will occasionally agree to this by prior arrangement, when the mailing is very small.

They will almost never insert your mailing in the queue in front of someone else. Mail houses make very little money off of each political mailing, so they are not inclined to accommodate panicked candidates.

Most deliveries from the mail house to the Post Office are made once a day before the Post Office stops accepting pallets. This usually means that a truck will pick up the pallets of mail from the mail house sometime between 3:00 and 5:00 for delivery to the Post Office.

In summary, if you want a mailer to drop at the Post Office on Thursday, latest. You will need to coordinate the delivery date of your mailer to the mail house so that it has time to process and "drop" the piece to the Post Office.

"Drop" Date Crucial At End of Campaign

The closer to an election a mail piece arrives at a residence, the more impact it stands to have on the voter. In other words, if the election is on a Tuesday, the best day for it to "hit" is on Monday. If you knew the voter was not going to the poll until after 5:00 PM, it would be even better if they got the mail the same day as the election. It is obviously a mailing disaster if the voter gets your mail piece on Wednesday.

So, how do you know when to send your last mailing(s)? Let's use Miami-Dade County as an example of best practices, because it represents the largest geographic concentration of voters in Florida, and hence, the greatest difficulty for the Postal Service to deliver political mailings on a timely basis.

If the election is held on a Tuesday, to be safe, the mailing should be "dropped" at the Post Office Central Facility by the mail house no later than Thursday of the week before. Wednesday would be better if you want something close to a guarantee that every single piece will hit before Tuesday. A Thursday drop is generally a safe bet, but less safe than Wednesday. A Friday drop is iffy. If there are a lot of campaigns, and therefore mailings, in the postal pipeline, the Post Office will probably deliver on a first come, first serve basis. Mail can be delivered to the Post Office on a Saturday, but few mail houses are open on Saturday. Will it hit by Tuesday? It's a long shot, and there is a good chance that a lot of your mail pieces will not be delivered until after the election.

Time Is Up

So what do you do if there is a high probability that your time has run out to get the piece delivered before the election. Two options: cancel the mailing and save the postage money for the victory party, or consider sending the same or a smaller mailing using First Class postage. Many mail houses have the capability of changing the postage indicia to reflect a change in the mailing status from bulk mail to First Class mail.

In other words, if it is Friday noon and you have just delivered the mailers to the mail house, assuming they will process them for an evening delivery to the Postal facility, mailing them First Class will probably ensure they all hit by Monday. This is sometimes also true for a Saturday mailing.

You will get no guarantees from the Post Office, and once your mail piece is delivered to the bay of the Postal facility, it is entirely out of your control, or anyone's control for that matter. Even politicians of significant consequence have complained to the Post Office to no avail. Threats or intimidation are not only silly, it could result in your mailing being delivered days after the election, with no recourse.

Printing Is the Weak Link

The weakest link in the entire mail process is the printer. It is not because they intend to delay or are nonchalant about your mailing. It is usually because they have one printing press that cost a few million dollars, and when it breaks down, or something else unforeseen happens, during a particular print job, all the other print jobs behind it are delayed. It takes time to fix any problem, and then get everything back on schedule, including your printing. It is the nature of the printing business.

The mail house, on the other hand, will frequently have redundant machinery, for example two label machines, at their disposal in an emergency. Or a mail house employee can take the mailer to the Post Office, because the normal truck driver became ill in the afternoon. If the printing press repairman becomes ill, the press is stopped until a backup mechanic can be located.