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 The Brancatelli File

joe GILDING A DEAD LILY:
STAMPS ON THE INTERNET


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

August 24, 1999 -- Before we discuss buying postage online, let me ask you a relevant question: Do you even send snail mail anymore?

I hear business travelers answering in unison: Snail mail? Me? Hardly ever!

And therein hangs the interesting part of this tale of PC-generated postage and printers. The less we use snail mail, the more often we run out of postage and don't have a stamp when we really need one.

In the old days--let's say 1980--business travelers carried a cache of stamps wherever they traveled. They stashed a roll in their toiletry bags or stuck a booklet in their wallets. Being without stamps then was like traveling sans laptop now. It just wasn't done.

But, as the years rolled by, we came to rely on overnight courier services. Then faxes. Then E-mail. By the time we reached the Internet era, most business travelers had switched virtually all their written communications to any other medium except snail mail. Postage became passť and the day inevitably came when we didn't replace that stamp roll in our kit bag or the stamp booklet in our wallet.

So now, when we're running through airports with our mortgage payment or our credit-card bill, we've got no stamps. There we are, E-ticket in one hand, laptop in the other, our mortgage payment and credit-card bill stuck between our teeth, and we're looking for the airport post office. But we never get to the airport post office. For one thing, we can't find it. Even if we do, the post office is so far from our gate--so far from any gate--that getting there would guarantee a missed flight.

And that is where "online postage" apparently comes in. The theory is that print-it-yourself postage is as close as the nearest computer. No trips to faraway bricks-and-mortar post office. No waiting on long lines. No wondering if the clerk is the US Postal Service employee voted most likely to go postal.

With the Postal Service's metaphoric stamp of approval, four companies are rushing into the postage-by-PC game. E-Stamp.com is up and running. Stamps.com begins peddling PC-generated stamps late in September. The other two, Neopost and Pitney Bowes, are beta testing.

Stamps.com is an Internet-based affair. You download software, open an account and print postage from your printer whenever you're connected to the Stamps.com website. E-Stamp is a bit more complicated. You buy a "starter kit," which includes a little "electronic vault" that attaches to the back of your computer, and use CD-based software. Postage is printed off-line and you only connect to E-Stamp when you need to "refill" the electronic vault.

Both firms charge a hefty premium for the right to print your own bar-coded stamps onto labels, envelope and packages. Stamps.com's "Personal Service Plan" costs $1.99 a month for the right to print up to $25 worth of stamps. Print more and you'll pay a 15 percent fee on the overage up to a monthly maximum of $19.99. E-Stamp charges $49.95 for its starter kit. Each time you fill the vault, you pay a convenience fee ranging from $4.99 to $24.99.

Besides the obvious jibe--paying a premium for the right to send snail mail is like gilding a dead lily--both Stamps.com and E-Stamp have a huge drawback. You need a printer attached to your computer to get a stamp. That might not be a problem if you're working from home, but few business travelers fly around the country with a printer.

No printer, no print-your-own-stamp. And no stamp means we're still running through the airport with the E-ticket, the laptop and the mortgage payment and credit-card bill stuck in our teeth.

Thankfully, there is a back-to-the-future solution. It's admittedly low-tech and borderline neo-Luddite. But it's a hell of a lot more convenient than schlepping around a printer just so you can print stamps from your laptop.

Order your stamps by snail mail. The Postal Service has a program, dubbed, prosaically enough, "Stamps By Mail." You send them a check and they snail mail you as many stamps as you want. You can also order stamps by telephone (800-STAMP24) or from a Postal Service website called Stampsonline.com.

Stamps By Mail has four distinct advantages. One: Like Stamps.com and E-Stamp, you don't have to go to a bricks-and-mortar post office. Two: you'll get those snappy, new self-stick stamps and you can stick a roll of them in your kit bag or hide a booklet in your wallet. Three: no surcharge. The Postal Service sells stamps at face value and even ships them free.

Lastly, the form to order for Stamps By Mail comes with its own envelope--and the envelope already has a stamp on it!

This column originally appeared at Skymalltravel.com

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.