No Room at the In-Box

Five years ago, a mobile trailer on the Sacred Heart University campus provided plenty of space for Art Gerckens to conduct the mail center’s business. Then the University moved the department into a new facility in 2003, “and it was huge. Now, the walls are closing in on us,” he said. “As we keep looking down the road, we are trying to grab space wherever we can because the packages are coming in every single day.”

It’s a similar story at most campus mail centers. Gerckens counted more than 1.5M pieces of mail and packages for his 2,500 resident students in December 2007 alone; he’s on pace to juggle three million pieces for the current fiscal year at this Fairfield, CT site. And that’s with the number of letters flowing through either holding steady or declining, according to Thom Roylance. President of the National Association of College and University Mail Services and assistant director of Brigham Young University’s print and mail production center. His outbound letters in 2006 totaled nearly 1.2M pieces — that fell to 670,000 pieces in 2007.

Since the number of letters is declining, this means, of course, that the volume of packages is skyrocketing. Glenn Strause, director of printing and mailing services at Bethlehem, PA’s Lehigh University, says he’s seen a 12 percent increase annually since 2005 in package traffic. It’s a combination of, eBay purchases, and apparel. “Anything they can order on line, they do,” he said. The pace really picked up when Barnes & Noble took over that campus’s bookstore operations.

A simple policy change opened the floodgates at Brigham Young (BYU). Departments have issued purchasing cards to deans and directors to use carte blanche for any amounts under $2,000. Most cardholders choose the convenience of Internet shopping for these buys. “While it may have saved Purchasing a little bit of money, it has sure passed the cost over to us where we now deliver that,” noted Roylance.

Still, these managers have found ways to keep their heads above water. Strause, in fact, has reduced his employee payroll from eight part-timers to just four, thanks to automation.

Bar Codes to the Rescue
Thom Roylance first reported to work at BYU’s Provo, UT mail center in 1975… and couldn’t wait to get out. He returned in the 1980s, sorting mail by day and attending classes to earn his bachelor’s degree at night. “I couldn’t wait to get out,” he repeated. But he was hired as the assistant manager in 1989, and hasn’t left since.

The attraction is simple. “It’s not your grandpa’s post office any more,” he pointed out. The word “mailroom” fell from the lexicon in favor of “mail center,” a thriving operations facility that often handles printing services in addition to packages and envelopes. “We are seeing the industry become more professional, and a lot more complex.”

Most mail center managers cope via tracking systems. Strause, who is also the current president of the National Association of College and University Mail Services (NACUMS), is using Hasler Mailing Systems’s tracking system. He scans packages the second they arrive to automatically generate an e-mail notice for the receiver. Students receive the heads-up in real time, so they can start moving toward the center to collect their order. Gerckens also uses UPS’s QuantumView to check the expected delivery load for the next few days and plan his daily assignments accordingly.
“We’re seeing more private carriers, primarily because of the trace and track capabilities,” Roylance noted. “The United States Postal Service’s delivery confirmation has not proven to keep pace with their competition.”

Strause used to write up package delivery notices by hand, which meant three to four people spent four to five hours a day on this laborious task to cover 400 packages. Now the package tracking system spits out labels he can slap on both the box and a notification card. Voilà! Now two people can handle a heavier volume in just two hours.

Roylance has already invested the $15,000 into equipment upgrades he’ll need to work with the mandatory intelligent mail barcodes (formally known as the Four-State Customer Barcode) set to hit the industry in 2009. “It’s a chunk of change,” he admitted, “but I personally think this barcode is a step in the right direction.” NACUMS also encourages mail center executives to meet with their address management services at the postal service and work together to establish a common address format, and keep the pieces flowing seamlessly from one station to the next.

Just Say No
Gerckens keeps a close eye on the types of boxes streaming through his center. As soon as he gets a whiff of packages being delivered from a distribution center, he’s on it like a bloodhound to see if a student has set up an Internet or multi-level marketing business from a residence hall room. The University certainly has nothing against entrepreneurship, but due to the rising mail volumes, the University passed a policy requiring the next Jeff Bezos to work out a P.O. box with the city of Fairfield.

Of course, there’s a time to enforce the rules, and a time to look the other way. For instance, most campuses have a “no personal packages” rule for faculty and staff, Roylance acknowledged. But it’s not uncommon for a department secretary or Professor Smith to prefer eBay send their spouse’s birthday gift to their work address instead of the front porch. As long as it doesn’t get out of hand, he looks the other way.

Meanwhile, Strause plans to expand his window and start doubling up on runners to keep packages from piling up in the limited space available. He’s found a steady stream of labor — on another department’s dime — by using work-study students. “The volume is here and I don’t ever see it going down,” he added.