For those of you who don't know, I subscribe to Netflix, an Internet movie rental service where for one flat fee, you can rent as many movies a month as you want and keep them as long as you want with no late fees, and the only catch is that you can only have a certain number out at a time. (How many depends on how much you're willing to pay; in my case, it's five at a time.)
They send you the movies in a fold-over envelope that, when opened, becomes the postage-paid return envelope. It's one of those standard ones that, in the corner, says, "No postage necessary if mailed in the United States," like the ones you get in all that junk mail you receive every day.
Completely unrelated to that is the fact that my mom used to work in an office where they had a postage meter. You can actually buy one yourself if you run a small business, and not have to worry about getting stamps at the post office.
Completely unrelated to that is the fact that every once in a blue moon, I still mail a letter to someone using an old-fashioned envelope and a stamp. These are usually bills, invitations, and the like, but on special occasions may even be something like letters to my congressmen.
Where am I going with this? Well, at the post office, there are always two mailboxes for outgoing mail. One is labelled "STAMPED" and the other is labelled "METERED." It's pretty obvious that old-fashioned letters I mail with a stamp go into the STAMPED box. Letters that my mom's old office, using the postage meter, mail go into the METERED box. But what about my Netflix returns? It's not really stamped, because there's no stamp. It's not really metered, because there's no meter. It's just "No postage necessary." I always drop them off at the post office because if someone sees me putting red Netflix envelopes in my mailbox every few days and raising the flag, they might get the wise idea that it would be a nifty source of free DVDs.
So when I go to the post office to drop them off, I'm always confused. I usually just pick one at random to drop them in. They've always made it back with no problem, but I get the weird feeling that they hate me when I put them in the wrong box. "Well, crap, he has screwed us yet again. Do I look like his personal mail sorter? I guess he thinks he's more important than all those other people in his his ZIP code. Like I have nothing but time to put up with this *#@$!. That's it, I've had enough, I'm going home to get my gun. I know where you live, because I'm the postman!
Fortunately, I haven't had any repercussions that dramatic yet, but still, I'm just odd enough that it worries me that someone at the post office may think I'm being dense by not putting my mail in the right box, and I'm really zany in that if I can make someone else's life a tiny bit better with little or no effort, I will endeavor to do so.
Since I work at night right now, I decided to go up to my local post office during the day to see if I could find out a little bit more information. I didn't want to tie up the lines for no reason at all (my local post office can be quite busy), so I tried to go when I thought that the lines may be real short (10:30am, in case anyone wants to know the "sweet spot") and wrote three letters to my two senators and my representative with my idea for Social Security that I wrote about a few weeks ago. I figured that maybe the prospect of earning $1.11 (37¢ x 3) would help make my stupid questions a little more palatable, and it makes me feel all warm and gooey that I'm making a half-hearted attempt to be a responsible citizen.
So off I went, letters in hand, to ask the pressing question, and maybe even learn something in the process. I timed the dead hours of the post office pretty well, there were only two people in front of me and no one came in behind me while I was there, so for those who might be concerned, I didn't waste any taxpayer money by tying up government workers who would have otherwise been occupied.
I talked to James, who was more than friendly and very helpful. I gave him my three letters to my congressmen, and started asking him questions. First up was the stamped vs. metered question. I asked away, and James told me--drumroll, please--that these envelopes belong in the metered mailbox. He said that these envelopes are still technically metered, even though the graphic isn't produced by a postage meter. I promptly apologized for all of the times I put the envelopes in the wrong box, and he said, "That's okay, sir, we sort them out." I assured him that I would put them in the correct box from now on, and he said, "Really, it's okay, we get paid to do this."
Paid to sort out mail? I wasn't shocked by this, but I thought they had machines to do this kind of thing. I asked about that, and he said no, at a branch office like this one, they sort all of the mail manually, no machines. Someone cracked a joke about if they got some of those machines, they wouldn't need James any longer. (I disagree; James was providing me a valuable service at the moment!) I mentioned that when I print out envelopes, I usually print them with barcodes on them from Microsoft Word, and asked if that really helps since they sort everything by hand. He said that if it's staying within my own ZIP code, it doesn't really, but that if it goes to another city, it spends considerably less time at the central post office in Atlanta, where they do have machines that automatically sort the mail. I also found out from the USPS Web site that businesses that bulk mail can get discounts for having these barcodes on their envelopes. I really was disappointed that they have no fancy cool machines to sort the mail at my local branch; I was seriously considering asking for a quick tour to see them working if they did.
While I was there, I asked one more question I sometimes wonder about. If I put a piece of mail in the post office mailbox instead of my street mailbox, does it get to its destination any faster? James said that no, all of the mail is sent out at the same time each day, whether it comes from someone's house or is dropped at the mailbox. Interesting.
So there you have it. Next time you send something back to a company in a postage-paid envelope by taking it to the post office, be sure to drop it in the METERED mailbox, not the STAMPED mailbox. They won't hate your guts if you put it in the wrong box, but it's just the right thing to do.