Wednesday, May 20, 2015

When 30 Equals 33: America's Bizarre Methods of Calculating the Weight of Paper

My fellow Americans mostly seem allergic to anything having to do with the metric system. Can’t remember how many teaspoons go into a tablespoon? Is our country falling behind in science because we’re handicapping our kids with the “English” measurement system. Doesn’t matter.

 “WAM: We ain’t metric!” my countrymen kneejerk. After all, if you give those socialist, one-world-government Europeans 2.54 centimeters, they’ll take 1.60934 meters.

But when it comes to specifying the weight of paper, even some red-blooded Americans throw up their hands and say “What’s that in GSM?”

There’s never been a better time for U.S. buyers of graphic paper to understand what GSM (grams per meter) means – and how messed up our own system of basis weights is.

Publishing Executive just published a piece I wrote noting that U.S. prices for magazine-quality paper are at record high levels in comparison with European prices. That means it’s a great time to look overseas for paper, especially since North American mills are gearing up to raise prices again in July. But to get the best deals, you might need to understand how the rest of the world talks about paper weight.

I’m reminded of a colleague’s story about buying 33# SCB paper (lower quality than coated paper but better than newsprint) from a non-U.S. mill. When the shipment arrived at a U.S. printing plant, the printer notified my colleague of an error: The rolls were marked “30#” (pronounced “30 pound”), indicating the paper was about 9% lighter and thinner than intended.

The mill’s sales office had correctly translated the order from 33# to the more universally understood 48.9 gsm. But the mill was only used to making newsprint for U.S. customers, so it thought 48.9 gsm translated to 30# in Americanese. The paper was OK; the label was just wrong.

From Catalyst Paper's "How We Make Paper"
A page of 30# newsprint, you see, weighs the same as a 33# page of magazine-quality paper (and of other publication grades that use the “book, text, offset” method of calculating basis weight).But two same-sized sheets of 48.9 gsm always weigh the same, regardless of whether one is copy paper and the other wallpaper or tissue or newsprint.

The U.S. has 11 different systems for calculating the basis weight of paper. Standard resume paper is 20# bond – generally a nice stiff, opaque sheet. It’s also more than 2½ times the weight of 20# coated paper, which is an extremely thin, translucent paper that is likely to be used in dictionaries or Bibles.

Confused? Wait, it gets worse. When magazine publishers refer to 80# cover stock, they usually mean something that, logically enough, is double the weight of the 40# coated paper they might use on their internal pages. The rest of the world would say the publisher is using 59 gsm text stock and 118 gsm cover stock.

But “80# cover” can also refer to paper that is measured based on the “cover” method of calculating basis weight rather than the “book, text, offset” method. It weighs 216 gsm. Thus, even when Americans are speaking to Americans, a request to use 80# cover stock can easily result in the pressroom printing covers that are too heavy for the saddle stitchers that are supposed to bind the publication and too expensive for the publisher's budget.

Many overseas mills are accustomed to making paper for U.S. customers, knowing, for example, that 40# coated paper should be 59.26 gsm. And if they make a lot of paper for U.S. customers on a steady basis, they might actually make a “true 40#” that is indeed targeted at 59.26 gsm.

But rather than manufacturing a special batch of paper for the U.S. market, many mills will just make 60 gsm, which is a common weight for European magazine papers that comes out to 40.5# in Americanese. That results in using more paper and having higher postage and freight costs versus true 40#. But it’s not a reason to avoid overseas paper.

For my fellow American buyers of magazine grades like coated and supercalendered papers, as well as for book papers, here’s the key formula: 0.675 gsm is equivalent to 1# of basis weight. European mills typically offer weights that are about 1.3% above the U.S. equivalents – e.g. 45 gsm (30.38#) in place of 30#, 51 gsm (34.43#) in place of 34#, or 60 gsm in place of 40#.

A good rule of thumb is that such weight differences will cost publishers about 2%, a bit more if the copies are mostly mailed, a bit less if many are sent via the newsstand system. So if I’m buying 40# coated #5 paper for 40 cents per pound, I might consider a price of 39.20 cents for 60 gsm to be competitive, but not a bargain.

And since that 60 gsm was recently selling for something like 33 cents in Europe, I know the manufacturer has plenty of incentive to be more than just competitive in the U.S. market.

A footnote about Canadian paper: Canadians have pretty much converted to the metric system, but their mills sell so much paper into the U.S. that they usually spec it to U.S. standards and practices. Thus, Canadian paper is pretty much like U.S. paper except that it occasionally throws in a random “Eh?” at the end of a sentence.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Does the Postal Service Have Too Many CCAs?

The U.S. Postal Service is pushing its ability to hire low-paid City Carrier Assistants to the limit – and apparently beyond the limit.

The agency had 3,300 more CCAs in April than allowed in its labor contract with the National Association of Letter Carriers, a report USPS issued last week indicated.

The 2011 contract that created the non-career position capped the number of CCAs in each district at 15% of the total number of full-time career city carriers -- plus another 8,000 nationwide to allow "flexible windows which may be necessary to develop and provide new products and services."

The report shows that USPS had 164,582 City Carriers on its rolls in April. Adding 15% of that number plus another 8,000 yields an apparent cap of 32,687 CCAs. But the same report says the Postal Service had 36,074 CCAs.

It could be argued that the Postal Service is following the spirit of the labor agreement because career carriers are not being harmed. None have been laid off, and on average they are getting about as many overtime hours as they did four years ago (though some individual carriers have seen drastic changes in their overtime).

The average base pay for CCAs was recently reported as $15.80 per hour, versus $27.52 and much better benefits for full-time city carriers.

A key to new ventures
USPS is certainly capitalizing on the "flexible windows" and "new products and services" that the NALC contract envisioned. Relying on lower-paid CCAs has been a key to the Postal Service’s rapidly expanding Sunday deliveries for Amazon and its hopes of competing with private businesses on delivering a variety of "non-mail" items from groceries to fresh flowers.

The growing pool of CCAs has also helped USPS serve an increasing number of delivery points and grow its labor-intensive parcel business.

Amazon grocery packages awaiting delivery by CCAs
But the Postal Service will be hard pressed to grow further without increasing the ratio of CCAs to career carriers even more.

Accounts of 60-hour workweeks for bedraggled CCAs are already legion. Since October, CCAs have worked an average of one hour of overtime for every five hours of straight time, and at times during December the ratio was one to three.

The wage savings from using CCAs have also come with some costs. Turnover is high, straining the Postal Service’s ability to hire and train new CCAs. And the new hires are reportedly more prone to injuries and to missed deliveries than are long-time carriers who know their routes well.

Related articles:



Thursday, April 23, 2015

Flushed With Success: This Print-Based Ad Campaign Is an Extra-Base Hit

Maybe pine tar would help
I’m glad that great celebration of greenwashing known as Earth Day is finally over.

Bad turned to worse when my bank even urged me to “go green” (i.e. put more green into its CEO's wallet) by switching my statements and payments from mail to the coal-fired Internet.

But instead of getting pissed off, we here at the Dead Tree Edition Research Institute decided to take the offensive (some would say “very offensive”) and highlight yet another example of what print can do that digital media can’t.

Today’s edition of “Just Try That With an iPad” comes to you courtesy of a longtime Dead Tree Edition reader, who apparently has the unusual hobby of shooting photos in crowded public restrooms. He leaked news to us of a clever print campaign, placed in the urinals at a minor league baseball park in Trenton, New Jersey, that simply cannot be replicated via digital media.

O, say can you pee?
From what he observed, the campaign had what the web geeks would call “high reader engagement” and 100% “viewability.” Some reputable web sites struggle to achieve 70% viewability.

When was the last time you saw a digital ad that actually got guys thinking about whether their trouble with “balls and strikes” merited medical attention? And note that the marketing wizz behind this wee print campaign got the target market’s attention without even resorting to any high-tech tricks like HAUBs.

Yeah, you know, HAUBs – heat-activated urinal billboards. Sure, it sounds nuts (sorry), but that really is a thing.The message on these little billboards isn’t revealed until some “P” is added to the H-A-U-B, thanks to the magic of heat-activated inks.
Basketball has lots of dribblers. Just sayin'.

Can e-ink do that?

Nor did the urologists’ campaign take advantage of the latest paper breakthrough -- urine-activated origami distress signals. (I swear I am not making this up.)

A team of researchers recently announced it is coating sheets of standard copy paper (“uncoated freesheet” to us print geeks) with special microbes that get excited in the presence of “golden showers.”

After a few well-placed folds to make a tetrahedron, plus what polite baseball fans would call a visit to the dugout, a single sheet of the paper will broadcast a distress signal. Probably something like: “Alert! Someone needs serious help – can’t tell a tetrahedron from a toilet!”

Target market: Guys who can't hit the target.  
With advances flowing so fast in print and paper technologies, pretty soon we’ll have HAUBs that will sense when a guy has been “at bat” too long or is having trouble "hitting the strike zone."

Then it will send out a distress signal that schedules an appointment for him to see a urologist the next morning.

 You got an app that can do that?

Further thoughts on Earth Day and print media:

Monday, April 20, 2015

Why Letter Carriers Are Not an Endangered Species

“Mail carrier” was recently named as one of the 10 worst careers in the U.S., largely because of a supposedly bleak employment outlook.

“Hiring of mail carriers has been on a steady decline with the proliferation of email and text messaging,” CareerCast said in ranking mail carrier #191 out of 200 careers. “Of all careers tracked in the 2015 Jobs Rated Report, mail carrier has the worst 10-year growth outlook.”

CareerCast’s jobs outlook was based on a U.S. Labor Department projection that the number of mail carriers would shrink by 28% from 2012 to 2022. That’s no surprise: Just about everyone knows that digital technology is making letter carriers an endangered species.

There’s just one problem with this scenario: “Just about everyone” is wrong.

The number of people delivering mail for the U.S. Postal Service is actually growing slightly.

It's true that since the end of 2012, the number of career USPS employees involved in mail delivery has dipped slightly, from 243,000 to 237,000. But the shrinkage all occurred during 2013; recent statistics show the number has stabilized or is rising slightly.

And when non-career employees like city carrier assistants (CCAs), are included, mail delivery looks like a growth field. That, plus the high turnover among CCAs, is why “We’re hiring!” signs are popping up at many post offices.

USPS statistics don’t provide apples-to-apples comparisons of non-career employee counts, but the numbers on hours worked are a good proxy. So far this year, the straight-time hours worked by all (both career and non-career) “city delivery carriers” are up 5% from two years ago, while the hours for all “rural carriers” have increased nearly 3%.

Digital technology taketh away, and . . . 
What “just about everyone,” including the Labor Department, seems to miss is that digital technology – specifically, online purchasing – is adding work for the Postal Service’s carrier force. When stuff is bought online, someone has to deliver it.

And when that delivery is to a residential address, chances are that the “final mile” is handled by a USPS letter carrier even if the package was sent via UPS or FedEx.

The Postal Service is doubling down on its unique ability to reach every residential address. It has slashed some Priority Mail prices for frequent shippers and is testing rapid delivery of everything from fresh flowers to groceries.

Outgoing Postmaster General Pat Donahoe hinted late last year that Sunday delivery of packages would soon become the norm, not just something USPS does for Amazon in select markets.

So all indications are that the number of packages delivered by letter carriers will continue growing, which is why specs for USPS’s new delivery vehicles call for more storage space. Those packages are far more labor intensive than traditional mail; Priority Mail boxes don’t end up in nice walk-sequenced trays or carrier-route bundles.

And even the labor savings from the gradual shrinkage of traditional mail mostly get canceled out by continuing growth in the number of delivery addresses.

The big threat
The big threat to employment levels for USPS carriers is possible curtailment of Saturday delivery of letters and flats. But that would put only a sizable dent – nowhere close to a 28% reduction – in letter-carrier employment levels.

And it continues to face rough going in a reluctant Congress, where members have recently been getting an earful from constituents about slow delivery.

So don’t put letter carriers on the endangered-species list just yet. (There may be good reasons to put “mail carrier” on the list of 10 worst jobs, as I'm sure some postal workers would be happy to explain, but employment prospects are not one of them.)

The moral of the story: Beware of projecting past trends into the future, especially when the recent past runs counter to those projections.

Related articles:

Thursday, April 16, 2015

News Flash: New Postal Rates Slated for May 31

The U.S. Postal Service today filed tweaked versions of its proposed rate increases for the Standard, Periodicals, and Package Services classes and included this statement:

"The Postal Service hereby also provides notice that the Governors have authorized the Postal Service to adjust the prices for its market-dominant products effective May 31, 2015. This adjustment includes the prices previously approved by the Commission . . . for First-Class Mail and Special Services, as well as the proposed prices for Standard Mail, Periodicals, and Package Services, including the changes presented in this response . . . and the other prices presented previously in this docket."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Yo, Mailman, Bring Me a Flounder and a Dozen Roses

From dropping off water bottles to running a concierge service, the U.S. Postal Service is increasingly venturing into activities that have little to do with traditional mail delivery

A MailMyWay promotion
What's next, Postal Pizza?

The U.S. Postal Service’s recent experiments with new lines of business include delivering fresh fish, flowers, cases of water, and ready-to-cook meals.

In St. Louis, the agency is even trying out a “concierge service” called MailMyWay that picks up unpackaged items, places them into Priority Mail Flat Rate boxes, and mails them.

With traditional letter mail in slow decline, the Postal Service is eager to bolster its finances by developing new lines of business that leverage its massive delivery network and capabilities.

But getting such ventures off the ground is not always easy or simple. USPS and 1-800-Flowers announced a deal in late 2012 but only now are getting ready for a limited test in New York.

U.S. Postal & Rehydration Service
That will be on top of two existing NYC tests – delivery of fresh and frozen seafood for the famed Fulton Fish Market and next-day delivery of bottled water for Nestle. (Why try out these ventures in the nation’s most populous city? Hey, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.)

USPS’s same-day delivery service, MetroPost, is being tested in New York and Phoenix, with plans for expansion to 1,800 ZIP codes all across the country, Ed Phelan, Vice President of Delivery Operations, told a recent gathering of mailers.

Sunday delivery of packages for Amazon has been growing rapidly, with the e-commerce giant “looking at expanding the service to all serviceable ZIP codes across the country,” Phelan’s presentation said. That has USPS examining where it can place more delivery hubs for the service.

Another growing Amazon-USPS partnership is Amazon Fresh, which delivers groceries to doorsteps in parts of the New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco areas.

“We're branching out as fast as we can while being careful not to sacrifice the quality and convenience our customers expect,” says the Amazon Fresh web site. The service is coming soon to Washington, DC; Portland, Oregon; and Sacramento, according to USPS.

Amazon Fresh totes awaiting delivery
Phelan also said the Postal Service is providing deliveries for Blue Apron, which sends chilled meal-ingredient packages with recipes to its subscribers.

The question for USPS’s traditional clientele – you know, the folks who send out, like, letters and stuff that go into actual mailboxes – is whether the new ventures will strengthen the Postal Service’s finances or distract it from serving the customers who still pay most of its bills.

Related articles: