With another postal rate increase due next year, circulators are investigating alternative forms of delivery, including hand delivery, that might save them cash.
What the technique delivers is far more control over a piece of mail. "Once you put that copy into the USPS mail stream, it's tough to manage the process they go through to get your copies to a subscriber," said Mike McShane, national distribution director for Reed Business Information.
"You get the publication to its destination between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. on Monday," said Lou Bradfield, corporate distribution director at VNU Business Media. "[You're] just in time to be in the first internal mail run to the executives. USPS can't guarantee that." But he also observed that hand delivery, which had been used successfully for years by some publishers, requires a circulator to conduct a serious logistical analysis before execution.
Maxine Minar, COO of Post Newsweek Tech Media, estimated that she saves between 5% and 6% with hand delivery. But Bradfield said the savings are fairly small.
"While the cost per copy may be lower than mail, the extra splits in the file, cost of `coding' the records, etc.-plus the extra shipments, cartons, pallets, etc.-often offset the savings," Minar said. "Most of those who use it, to my knowledge, do so for the early and day-specific delivery."
Moreover, the logistics behind hand delivery can be difficult. "Buildings might be locked, floors inaccessible," Bradfield said. McShane noted that some files have a specific drop-off point, such as a security guard. "Never in a mailbox," he cautioned. "That's illegal."
This part of the postal code has been in effect for some time, so hand-delivery agents have had to find alternate places to put magazines. "In businesses, post 9/11, security is much tighter, and floor-to-floor delivery, while still available some places, is much tighter now," he said.
There are other negatives, too. Ken Savoy, CMP Media's distribution manager, said his company hand-delivered fewer than six weekly publications up until 2000, but cut back to just one, Information Week, in the D.C. area. "Flying magazines around just got to be unwieldy and costly," he said. "I'm glad we're pretty much out of that business."
Despite these obstacles, subscribers appreciate having their magazines delivered to a very specific spot. And, like most newspapers, the service aspect extends to having issues replaced the same day on the rare occasions when they're lost or wet.
McShane has sometimes bitten the bullet and paid more than USPS rates to get a title to a subscriber. "The demands of the subscriber can outweigh the cost when a subscriber is really important to you and giving them that service is important to you," he said.
More publishers are considering hand delivery, Minar said, than just a few years ago. "The tough part of it is that there are only a few dependable companies out there to fill the need," she said.
Hand-delivery agents, meanwhile, are hoping to see an uptick in business.
"Things are pretty steady right now, as far as number of queries and amount of work compared with the last two years," said Stan Goldberg, a service manager at alternative-delivery service National News. "But any time you have a postal increase, there is definitely a spike in calls from potential customers."
While McShane said he thinks more publishers should consider hand delivery, he also said he doesn't believe it's for everyone. "If you're dropping your mail at your printers, then you're not adding any additional freight charges," he said. "But if you're already trucking your stuff to Chicago, there's no reason not to see if hand delivery will be cheaper for you."