A Brief History of Direct Mail (Part 2)

By TJ Tedesco

In our last post, we covered the evolution of Direct Mail Processing. Today we’ll tackle changes in Mail Preparation and Back End Postal Discounting. 

Mail Preparation

Mail preparation equipment has evolved from slow, simple machines requiring a number of operators performing manual sorting on the output belt to fast, automated, one operator machines.

High-speed imaging devices have largely replaced Cheshire paper labels today. While there are many imaging techniques available, the direct mail industry is dominated by laser and inkjet printing. Customers seeking high quality, large image areas generally prefer laser printing. If personalization is required on only a small portion of the printed product (i.e., name and address), inkjet printing is more attractive.

Recently, great strides have been made toward bridging the quality gap between inkjet and laser printing. Today, there are inkjet units that not only produce images as large as laser printer output (with the same font selection), but which also do so faster and cheaper. The resolution standard for inkjet printing is now 300×600 dpi, while laser printing is 600×200 dpi or higher for platemaking. After imaging, more online or offline postpress processes can be done, or the job can directly enter the mailstream.

Generally, laser-printed forms are personalized box-to-box or roll-to-roll and then converted, folded, and glue-sealed, tab-sealed, or inserted into an envelope. A lot of time and money can be saved when inkjet imaging is done inline with other paper conversion processes.

The final step is to correctly package the mail to maximize postal discounts. Mailbags, like Cheshire labels, are all but dead. Non-letter mail palletization qualification has been reduced to a 250-lb. (113-kg) minimum, enabling mail bundling by proper qualification level. (In fact, with the approval of the Sectional Center Facilities, or SCF, manager, smaller “micro” pallets may be made in order to achieve desired penetration of the mail and to effect better delivery by the Postal Service.) Mail bundles are placed on pallets with destination placards affixed to each pallet. Postal trays, which protect and maintain proper mail orientation, can be used for both First-Class and Bulk Letter Mail.

Back-end Postal Discounting

Until 1992, a mailing job largely ended after USPS verification.

Now, the USPS encourages more cost-saving steps, including commingling of mail and drop-shipment entry. Commingling (pooling the mail from several companies together largely for automated letter-size mail) reduces postage expense by creating larger ZIP-Code strings. Commingling means that a lot of mail that previously would have traveled at basic rates is lowered to 3-digit rates, while much of the 3-digit mail is now charged at 5-digit mail rates.

Since presort machines commingle jobs at 30,000 to 40,000 pieces per hour, large mailing companies can offer postage savings far in excess of additional processing costs. Needless to say, this is a classic win-win-win situation because customers incur less postage costs, mailers make more money, and the USPS reduces processing time. Unfortunately, presort machines are expensive and generally are found at only the largest of high-volume mailers.

We hope you enjoyed this two-part history of Direct Mail. For more information on Heeter’s integrated direct mail, print, digital and fulfillment capabilities, please send me an email at or give me a call at 724-746-8900.

Some of the content for this post was originally published in the newly released Direct Mail Pal 2014, authored by T.J. Tedesco and Charley Howard (publisher: Printing Industries Press).