Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

SMALL BUSINESS: New Trends and Help for Growing Companies
| BUSINESS TOOLS: Software, Technology and New Products
to Help Your Company

E-Postage Is Easy but Not for Everyone

March 08, 2000|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If your business spends $20 a month or more on stamps, you may be a candidate for electronic postage.

Two companies, Stamps.com and E-Stamp, let you purchase postage via the Internet and print it directly on envelopes or labels from any laser or ink-jet printer. Both services are surprisingly easy to use. Neither is currently available for Mac users, however.

You can get started at no cost with a Stamps.com promotion for $20 worth of free postage. After that you'll have to pay for your own postage, along with the company's service fee. The fee ranges from $1.99 a month, if you spend between 0 and $19.99 a month; 10% of your postage costs, if you spend between $20 and $199.99; or $19.99 a month, if you spend $200 or more a month.

I took Stamps.com up on its free offer and was sending out letters on their nickel a few hours later. It takes only a few minutes to install the software, but you have to apply to the Postal Service for a "license" to print electronic postage. Fortunately the entire process is done online and is managed through Stamps.com's software. Your license arrives via e-mail three to six hours after you apply or the next day if it's after 5 p.m. or on a Sunday.

E-Stamp charges $49 for a start-up kit plus 10% of your postage costs or 5% if you buy $500 worth of postage at a time. E-Stamp is currently offering $50 worth of free postage to customers who buy a start-up kit by March 31, or you can get a free start-up kit if you're a QuickBooks 2000 user.

Although both Stamps.com and E-Stamp give you similar results, they do it in very different ways.

Stamps.com requires you to be on the Internet every time you print postage. The company does this because the cost of the postage is removed from your account as you print. For security reasons, the Postal Service--which regulates this industry--doesn't want people storing postage on their hard disks. Being live online greatly reduces the possibility of theft.

You print your postage from a small Windows program that you can either download from the Stamps.com Web site or order on a CD-ROM. This is a pretty hassle-free way of working if you have a full-time connection to the Internet via your company's local area network, but it could be a bit annoying for small and home-based businesses that rely on standard modems because they will have to dial into the Internet every time they need to print postage.

I send out only a few pieces of mail each week, and found Internet postage to be more of a hassle than it's worth. I'd rather affix a stamp than mess with special software and make sure I have the envelopes or labels inserted correctly.

E-Stamp requires you to be online when you buy postage but not when you print it. To get around the security issue, the postage you buy is stored in an electronic "vault," a small device that connects to the parallel port of your PC. The vault has a pass-through port so you can also connect a printer. Installing it is easy but having to use a device connected to the parallel port can be a problem for some people if they already have a Zip drive or other device (other than a printer) connected to their parallel port. It's also a problem on some new generation "legacy free" PCs that don't have a parallel port.

With both services, the address is checked against an official Postal Service database. It checks to see if you're sending it to a real street and if the ZIP Code matches the street address. In some cases, it will actually correct a mistake. I deliberately entered the wrong ZIP Code with Stamps.com and it replaced it with the correct ZIP Code.

Because E-Stamp runs while you're offline, you have to insert a CD-ROM into your PC for the validation process every time you print postage. Stamps.com does it automatically for you via the Internet.

Both services allow you to print directly to envelopes, to self-mailers and to a variety of label stock including labels printed on nifty label printers from Dymo and Seiko. If you do print on labels, however, you have to use post office-approved label stock that has a fluorescent strip required by postal service scanning equipment. You can order the labels directly from either company's Web site. Both companies will let you print first-class, priority mail and express mail postage but, for some reason, only E-Stamp lets you print parcel post. Stamps.com plans to add that feature in an upcoming release.

One issue for anyone printing his or her own postage is what happens if you make a mistake. Stamps.com's policy is to refund 90%, claiming USPS keeps the other 10%. E-Stamp will give you a 100% refund.

Stamps.com treated me a bit better than advertised. In my first test with Stamps.com, I accidentally checked Priority Mail instead of First Class and wound up spending $3.20 instead of 33 cents. I contacted the company's tech support department and, as a one-time courtesy, they agreed to credit my account for the full amount.

Based on my tests, either service will work for most small businesses. For companies with a full-time connection to the Internet, Stamps.com's service is probably less of a hassle. If you need to send parcel post, however, E-Stamp is your only choice.

*

Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard at 2:10 p.m. weekdays on the KNX (1070) Technology Hour. He can be reached at larry.magid@latimes.com. His Web site is at http://www.larrysworld.com.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|