Red Letter Daze At The Post Office

COLORED ENVELOPES ARE staying couriers from their appointed rounds. While the U.S. Postal Service's $5 billion automation push is now largely complete, its fancy new optical scanners that sort mail have a real downside: problems reading brightly colored envelopes. And that will make for major headaches this holiday season, when mail volume doubles.

Take bar codes, which the Postal Service prints on letters for the benefit of the optical recognition machines. When the scanner can't make out the black bar codes on red greeting-card envelopes, the cards get kicked out of the sorting process. White stickers with the bar code must then be affixed to the envelopes, a costly, slow process.

Another snafu: Some direct-mail and holiday envelopes use a heavy phosphorescent coating to give them extra zip, so to speak. That's similar to the coating on stamps, which Postal Service machines look for and then cancel. The upshot is cancellation marks all over the envelope.

Postal officials have asked manufacturers to tone down the colors and cool the phosphorescence. Envelope makers have complied to some extent. Yet since consumers like these features, they're still on the market. "I call this the growing pains of automation," says Maynard Benjamin, president of the Envelope Manufacturers Assn. of America.

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