Are You on the Post Office’s VIP List?

As if taking its cues from the world of exclusive nightclubs, the U.S. Postal Service has declared that you have to be “in the know” to get the best value for your mailing dollar.

Consumers who mail certain printed materials are just learning that the traditional discounted rate for “bound printed matter” is only available to a select few. Postal Service policy apparently now prohibits clerks from granting customers this low rate unless they specifically ask for it.

This quiet policy change represents yet another strike against individual consumers, who regularly subsidize other categories of mail.

Bound printed matter (BPM) is simply a post-office term for many types of permanently secured printed material — like catalogs, dictionaries, and phonebooks, for example. BPM packages must weigh less than 15 pounds and meet certain other technical requirements.

Many consumers use Media Mail to send books, audio recordings, and other assorted printed matter. In fact, the Postal Service itself commonly refers to Media Mail as the “Book Rate.” The content requirements for Media Mail are less stringent than for BPM — packages can weigh up to 70 pounds and can contain a greater variety of material, from sheet music to educational literature.

These special rates are both relatively cheap. For example, mailing a four-pound book, say The Oxford Complete Shakespeare or Julia Child’s The Way to Cook, to a relative within a 150-mile radius costs only $2.41 at the BPM rate, according to the official USPS manual. Sending the same item by media mail costs $3.15. Sending either book by priority mail would cost at least twice as much. But then again, sending a book is seldom urgent business.

BPM is generally the cheapest option for an item such as the book mentioned above, but the rate increases with the distance the package is sent. When sending that four-pound book over a distance greater than 1,400 miles, media mail is the better value.

The Postal Service claims that consumer usage of the discounted BPM rate is rare. But in one recent fiscal year, according to a filing with the Postal Regulatory Commission, USPS received and processed 4.6 million pieces of bound printed matter — mostly from small businesses and ordinary consumers.

According to a Postal Service spokesman, BPM rate postage will be sold “only when customers specifically request this service.” He went on to say that this policy change was designed to “streamline the retail experience.”

Wouldn’t most consumers prefer a good deal to the few-second delay it takes to be asked? The financial incentive for a rip-off is clear — it allows the agency to promote more lucrative services like priority mail. And with the volume of First-Class mail declining, the Postal Service is eager to find alternative sources of revenue.

But should USPS really be salvaging its finances on the backs of ordinary consumers?

Only businesses and other frequent mailers are likely to know about cost-effective mailing options like the special BPM rate, particularly if clerks are forbidden from telling customers about it. The Postal Service has even removed the BPM rate from the calculator on its website — further hiding its existence from ordinary consumers.

Those customers lucky enough to know about the special BPM rate must wade through Postal Service procedures to receive the discounted price and then be willing to be a little pushy. Official policy asks that BPM packages be pre-posted — but does not require it. Clerks are apparently not allowed to mention the special rate at the counter — but they can accept and print BPM postage upon a customer’s request.

Postal consumers shouldn’t have to be VIPs to get a fair price for their mailing needs. And the fact remains that more economical alternatives — like the bound printed matter rate and media mail — exist for certain mailing needs, even if the Postal Service doesn’t always tout their availability.

Don Soifer is executive director of the Consumer Postal Council in Arlington, Va.

Don Soifer