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Confusing flat rate envelope
December 20, 2011 6:11 PM   Subscribe

How to I address a USPS Priority Mail envelope?

I just returned from a baffling time at the local post office, trying to mail a Priority Mail Flat Rate envelope using the self-serve kiosk.

The essential problem here is that there appear to be three different labeling options:
1. An area on the envelope itself with "To" and "From" areas marked
2. A "Priority Mail" address label, also with "To" and "From" areas, available in a stack right next to the envelopes
3. The barcoded label that comes from the kiosk, which has only a "To" area

It should be noted that there is no commonality among these -- each has a distinct size, shape, style and color. The only indication that they might be interchangeable alternatives is that they represent the same information (well, except for the barcoded label). Needless to say, my past experience with the post office did not leave me inclined to believe I could leave out some paperwork just because it was redundant.

To top it all off, there's yet another type of sticker, available on rolls, which simply says "Priority Mail." I gave up on trying to divine the intent behind that one.

I finally just put the barcoded label (with only a "To" address) on the address area of the envelope (turning it sideways so it didn't cover any of the other markings on the envelope).

I can guess as to the purpose of some of this, but my guesses don't make complete sense -- for example, the "Priority Mail" sticker looks like it's for non-USPS boxes, but I thought the whole point of the flat rate system is that it uses a set of standardized boxes.

Can anybody lay out the system here? And ideally explain why an option heavily advertised on simplicity leaves so much arbitrarily vague? (Other than "USPS is opaque and bureaucratic" -- they do a really good job on a lot of their other processes.)
posted by bjrubble to Shopping (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
If you're using the Priority flat-rate envelope, 1 and 2 are the same, essentially. You can either write directly on the envelope or on the label and then affix that label on the envelope, same deal. You can also send things Priority, NON-flat-rate, which is where the labels in 2 are useful: you can stick them on (nearly) any sort of packaging The rolls of Priority labels also go on those non-branded packages to point out to the handlers that it's Priority service, rather than First Class, Media, etc.

The barcoded labels are for special services, depending on color of the label: Delivery Confirmation, Signature Confirmation, etc. These are in addition to the actual mailing method, and those labels affixed and the part with the TO: information is removed and kept by you, the sender, as a receipt (which means the package must be addressed separately, and it sounds like you didn't do that part correctly, unfortunately).
posted by The Michael The at 6:20 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I send a lot of Priority Mail, but I don't work for USPS or anything. IME, it doesn't matter, so long as you get the postage and the address on there somewhere. PM does use a system of flat rate envelopes and boxes, but it also uses designated PM boxes and envelopes (like that Tyvek envelope you'll see around) that still need to be weighed and will vary in price, and it also allows you to send your own plain boxes and envelopes at PM rates. I'm not familiar with the kiosk you used, as I do it all online at home, but I bet it's just giving you a variety of options for different types and sizes of box and will accept any as long as it's clear you paid the right amount.

Confusing? Yeah, but flexible and awesome if you pay online and get free tracking.
posted by crabintheocean at 6:21 PM on December 20, 2011


#1: The easiest option. Write in your address, and ask the kiosk to print the smaller label. (i.e. when it asks you "Will this giant thing fit on your package?" answer "No.") This is what I do, and as a sometimes-eBay seller, I mail things a LOT.

#2: This is if you want to send another box or envelope by Priority Mail. You can send anything by Priority, it doesn't have to be the specially printed boxes and envelopes. And if you have the time and supplies, you can frequently save a lot of money by using your own package.

There's no need to use a special Priority address label for it, though. These ones, "meh." Just write "PRIORITY" on the package, and buy Priority postage, that's sufficient. Slap some of those Priority stickers on it if it makes you feel better, although they are not at all necessary in my experience.

#3: Who is buying these giant labels? I do not know. Just tell it they won't fit on your package, and it will print a small label, about 1" tall x 2 " long, for you to use as a stamp.

#4: The secret, normal-sized postage stamp-ish thing you were probably expecting. As mentioned, this can only be "unlocked" by telling the machine that the giant label won't fit on your package.
posted by ErikaB at 6:23 PM on December 20, 2011


Option #1 is there if you attach stamps, use a postage meter, or get your postage at the counter. You write the to/from addresses on the envelope, affix the proper postage, and mail: just like any other envelope.

Option #2 is intended for parcels or other mail not packaged in designated Priority Mail packaging. You can send most any random envelope or box as Priority Mail, subject to size+weight limitations. These labels just give you a place to write the address information if your packaging doesn't already have a place for it. The roll of Priority Mail stickers is for the same purpose: marking Priority Mail in non-PM packaging so the Post Office can separate it and route it accordingly. They have similar stickers for insurance and other special services too.

Option #3 combines postage with an address label. The recipient information goes on the label and (most if not all of it) is encoded in the barcode to facilitate postal automation. You write your return address elsewhere. If you tell the kiosk thing that the big barcoded label won't fit on your package, it will print a small stamp instead and you can proceed as with Option #1.

Bonus tip: buy and print your labels online and you get a small discount.
posted by zachlipton at 6:28 PM on December 20, 2011


The barcoded labels are for special services, depending on color of the label: Delivery Confirmation, Signature Confirmation, etc. These are in addition to the actual mailing method, and those labels affixed and the part with the TO: information is removed and kept by you, the sender, as a receipt (which means the package must be addressed separately, and it sounds like you didn't do that part correctly, unfortunately).

Crap. I didn't get any special services, though, I just paid the postage. Since there's no From address, I suppose that means it might just be lost forever?

I'm surprised that Priority Mail is used by so many people as a fully customized and tweakable high-volume system. I mail things maybe once a year, and went with this option because it seemed like the "you might pay a bit more but everything is standardized and predictable" option. Or is that the difference between "Priority Mail" and "Priority Mail Flat Rate"? (In which case I will now call it Bus 22A.)
posted by bjrubble at 6:50 PM on December 20, 2011


Go to usps.com and you can print out a sheet with postage and addresses that you can tape to the envelope. You will also save a little bit of money. It's pretty easy.
posted by Slinga at 7:01 PM on December 20, 2011


If you get the large postage sticker with the "To:" field from the APC, it's not necessary to write the address in that space if it's already elsewhere on your envelope. I've skipped rewriting the address when I've gotten the larger labels (you can't get Delivery Confirmation on the smaller ones because the barcode is too big), and my packages have all made it to their destinations just fine.
posted by phatkitten at 7:11 PM on December 20, 2011


Do you need to buy insurance or have delivery confirmation? It's best to go stand in line and address it there. There are different colored labels for each.
posted by Yellow at 7:20 PM on December 20, 2011


"you might pay a bit more but everything is standardized and predictable" option. Or is that the difference between "Priority Mail" and "Priority Mail Flat Rate"

Yes.

USPS has several sizes of "Priority Mail Flat Rate" packaging. For example, the medium flat rate box ships anywhere for $10.95. If I ship it empty or pack it with 70 pounds [I believe that's the maximum] of lead, it'll get to California for $10.95. It's predictable, though probably not the most efficient. As the ads say, "If it fits, it ships". All that packaging says "Flat Rate" on it. I just sent about 20 pounds of assorted junk [the contents of a forgotten suitcase] to my daughter at school in the larger box for $14.95. Can't beat that.

The non-flat-rate priority mail is "almost express mail" in that it will get pretty much anywhere in the US in 2 days [might be three] but costs much less than Express Mail. This mail will be weighed at the counter and priced accordingly. My empty box would be cheaper this way; my box of lead would be far more expensive. There is other Priority Mail packaging at the PO that does not say "Flat rate" on it. You don't have to use this packaging, as mentioned above. It has the advantage of being free. Back when I sold a ton of stuff on ebay, I shipped everything in these boxes. Can't beat free.
posted by chazlarson at 7:26 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you do it online you will also get free delivery confirmation, which you have to pay for at the Post Office.
posted by crabintheocean at 7:28 PM on December 20, 2011


Crap. I didn't get any special services, though, I just paid the postage. Since there's no From address, I suppose that means it might just be lost forever?

Don't worry. I think The Michael The is confusing labels for special services like this with the large postage/address labels spit out by the Automated Postal Centers, like this. What you bought today was the latter, correct?

When you use the APC (the electronic kiosk found in many USPS lobbies), at some point it will show you a picture of the large postage/address label and ask whether it will fit on your package. If you answer yes, it will print that out. If you answer no, it will give you a smaller postage-only printout, like this.

The large labels can be handy because they have the addressee's city, state, and zip code pre-printed on them, so you only have to fill in the name and street address. I never know where to put my return address, though.

As other people have said, as long as you got the address and the correct postage somewhere on the box, you should be fine.
posted by Orinda at 7:46 PM on December 20, 2011


I suggest you walk up to the counter. Those guys know their stuff.
posted by bleeb at 10:46 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


the large postage/address label and ask whether it will fit on your package

If you're using flat-rate boxes, the kiosk doesn't ask you if the label will fit -- the self-serve kiosk prints out the large label no matter what, with the space to put the address, much to my chagrin when using the smallest flat-rate box, where the large-label covers the entire front of the box. I had already put my own label on the front of the box, so I put the big sticker on the BACK of the box, against usual USPS rules, and it still got delivered to the recipient fine.

To the original post: the USPS is very, very efficient in delivering things as long as there's postage (sometimes, even incorrect postage) and an addressee somewhere on the outside of the package. They discovered long ago that it's more efficient to be flexible and focus on delivery rather than to try and enforce every single rule.
posted by AzraelBrown at 4:37 AM on December 21, 2011


Don't worry. I think The Michael The is confusing labels for special services like this with the large postage/address labels spit out by the Automated Postal Centers, like this. What you bought today was the latter, correct?

Yes, I was assuming the OP meant the former, rather than the latter. OP, if it's the latter you affixed, you should be in the clear.
posted by The Michael The at 6:20 AM on December 21, 2011


To the original post: the USPS is very, very efficient in delivering things as long as there's postage (sometimes, even incorrect postage) and an addressee somewhere on the outside of the package. They discovered long ago that it's more efficient to be flexible and focus on delivery rather than to try and enforce every single rule.

Yep. I once sent a postcard from India to a friend whose address I had forgotten. I just addressed it to (anonymized):
Friend Frienderson
Big house on the SE corner of X Street and Y Road
Townsville, ST 12345
USA
It got to him without a problem.
posted by The Michael The at 6:24 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


As a recipient of USPS flat rate priority international, I can assure you it is very reliable, very cost effective, and really the only way to send anything bigger than a letter from the US to the rest of the world.
Sadly, ebay doesn't seem to be able to calculate international postage for small items using these envelopes, so often a listing will be for e.g. a wristwatch, with postage costing $30.
The suitable flat rate priority envelope is about $10.
Of course, if it was a wristwatch I would probably suggest mailing it standard airmail for about $2!
posted by bystander at 2:58 AM on December 22, 2011


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