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An Introduction to Postage Meters - What is a Postage Meter and How Do They Work?

Businesses of all sizes use postage meters to streamline operations and reduce costs. Though you may assume only large organizations with dedicated mailrooms use them, there are in fact numerous models and types available, with a variety of extra features and applications. Capabilities range from sending 100 letters in a month all the way to machines capable of processing up to 20,000 items every hour.

What is a Postage Meter?

Businesses lease or rent postage meters from vendors, who share ownership of the machine itself with the United States Postal Service (USPS). The USPS owns the meter within the machine, while the vendor owns the machine itself. The machine is what actually prints the postage, which functions as a postage stamp, dated postmark, and cancellation. The imprint, also known as an indicia or a frank, includes a barcode that identifies the sender and protects the USPS from counterfeit postage.

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Businesses use postage machines to apply adequate, official postage to any type of mail item, including envelopes, postcards, and packages. Users may print the postage directly to an envelope or postcard, or onto a label they then affix to a package or large mailer.

Postage meters include security measures, such as a PIN system that locks the meter so that unauthorized users cannot access postage funds. They also allow organizations to monitor and track postage expenses, as well as purchase and store postage funds.

A scale is also included on the postage meter, which senders use to weigh the item to be mailed in order to ensure adequate postage is used.

How Does a Postage Meter Work?

Businesses that lease postage meters pre-fill the machines with funds that are then applied every time the business uses postage to send a letter or package. As the organization depletes these funds, it adds more to the meter via an online USPS account, ACH, or direct debit.

When you weigh an item, the machine allows you to choose the correct rate from the different postal class options. The unit then selects the appropriate amount of postage, printing that amount onto the package or label. Modern postage meters include a display menu that guides you through this process.

The machine includes an automatic or manual feeder. You place the item – envelope, postcard, or label – in the feeder, which pulls the item through, prints the indicia, and then deposits the item into a basket. If the machine also includes an envelope sealer, you can set it to seal the envelope as well. Once the mail goes through the meter and receives its stamp, it's ready to be sent. All postage used is automatically deducted from your available balance.

The Components of a Meter

No matter which type of postage meter you choose, certain components are standard. These include:

  • Base: This is where you find the feeder that sends the mail or label through the meter and imprints it with the postage mark.
  • The meter: The actual meter that calculates postage and distributes funds is located within the machine.
  • Feeder: This guides the item through the meter to the imprint. Your feeder choices are manual, meaning the operator hand-feeds the item through, and automatic. The capabilities of the automatic feeder vary based on machine type, with a maximum speed of 270 letters per minute.
  • Scale: This varies according to the type of postage meter, though all include a scale to ensure you apply enough postage to handle the weight of the item. The scale may be included as part of the postage meter (typically found on smaller units) or it may be a separate item (more common on larger units). When choosing a postage meter, look for one with a scale capable of handling the size of items your organization typically mails.
  • Display screen: These also vary according to the type of postage meter. They provide menu options for the unit, including selecting the postal class (first, second, etc.) and date for the postage. It also displays instructions guiding the operator through the process. You find display screens in color or black and white, with sizes ranging from two lines of text to 7 inches high. The newer large meters include touch screen capability.

Extra Features

In addition to the features found on all units, some common extra features include:

  • Sealer: This moistens and closes standard envelopes as they move through the feeder. This feature is both highly valuable as a time-saver and easily prone to malfunction (it's the most common feature operators complain doesn't work properly). One reason for this is the need to clean and replace the sealing brushes. Cleaning must happen regularly for the sealer to function properly, so look for units that have easy-to-access brushes.
  • Shortcut Keys: Designed to save time, these are buttons you can program to complete common tasks rather than working your way through a sequence to complete the same task.
  • Memory keys: Slightly different from shortcut keys, these allow you to store regular tasks, such as billing codes for all items sent to a particular country or address.

High Volume Mailing Features

Large mailing systems have their own handy features designed to streamline operations in a high-volume mailroom. These include:

  • Full keyboard
  • Touch screens
  • Catch trays capable of holding large amounts of mail
  • Conveyer stackers to sort and organize bulk mail

When comparing postage meters, look carefully at the extra features provided to determine which would improve productivity (the must-have list), which would make operators' lives a little easier (the nice-to-have list), and which features would get little use (the not worth the extra cost list). If you aren't sure, talk to the people who actually use the machines for front-line insight.

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