Co-mailing catches on

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When postal rates rise, as they will May 12, all classes of mailers seek out more inexpensive ways to send their mail. Publishers have been hit hardest by postage hikes in recent years—a fact that, combined with rising paper prices, is squeezing some publications' margins so tightly as to make print no longer viable.

Co-mailing, in which a printer ships titles from different publishers on the same pallet to the same area to save costs, has been seen as a godsend for many publishers. The process is finally opening up more as printers add co-mailing machines that allow for polybagged and tabloid-size titles to be co-mailed.

"Approximately 50% of our titles fall into the [tabloid and polybagged] category. This is a big deal for us," said Keith Hammerbeck, director of manufacturing services at Advanstar Communications, whose printing is handled by R.R. Donnelley & Sons.

"Now, if you are with the right supplier, almost everything should qualify [for co-mailing]," he added, which should lead to more savings.

Dedra Smith, president of magazine production consultancy Printmark West, said smaller publishers benefit the most from any improvements in co-mailing.

"For many publishers the savings are worth [the challenges of getting into a co-mailing pool]," she said. And those savings grow as the pool grows, so it pays to have all the publishers on the same page and mailing simultaneously.

"If a title misses a pool, it can reduce the savings for everyone, which means that the savings vary with each run," Smith said. "This creates a lot of budget variance that is hard to predict."

One recent change, Smith said, is that some bigger printers are now allowing smaller printers that compete with them to join their mailing pools. "This adds volume, but may add both time and freight costs that are less than ideal for the smaller printer," she said.

Smith noted that third-party co-mailers are emerging that hope to fill any void left by printers that don't provide polybagged or tabloid co-mailing. If a third-party co-mailing facility is in a location that would reduce travel, it could be very appealing to smaller printers, she said. "Naturally, this solution would reduce the volume of the existing facilities, and there is no predicting exactly what would happen," she added.

One production executive, who asked not to be identified, speculated that using a third-party facility would add too much in time and freight costs to make it an effective alternative, no matter what the co-mailing savings were.

Steve Grande, VP-sales at printer Fry Communications, which is about to start co-mailing polybagged titles but doesn't yet co-mail tabloids, said he is not alarmed by the potential growth of third-party co-mailers.

"This is a huge market," Grande said, noting that Fry started co-mailing six years ago and spent the first two years struggling to get publishers to come aboard. "That's not a problem anymore," he said, noting that Fry currently co-mails "millions of pieces" weekly, and that the number is growing.

As for the future of co-mailing, Ned Kulka, marketing director of printer Publishers Press, said that eventually co-mailing will likely be a part of standard-class mail rather than limited to periodical-class mailings. This, of course, would open up the market exponentially and give co-mailers still larger savings.

Smith said the U.S. Postal Service has a long-range plan for flat sequencing, which would automate the process of sequencing nearly all flat mail in order by delivery point. That process would greatly increase the possibilities and savings of co-mailing, but it still appears years away.

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