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Going postal may not pay when seeking stamps

Sunday, July 15, 2007

By Cindy V. Culp

Tribune-Herald staff writer

If standing in line to buy stamps isn’t your idea of time well spent, you might want to start developing a game plan to get them somewhere other than the post office.

Nationwide, the postal service has decided to yank most stamp-vending machines from post office lobbies. The process isn’t fully under way here, but it’s only a matter of time, says Theresa Meyers, Waco-area customer relations coordinator for the U.S. Postal Service.

Where to buy stamps without standing in line

If you're willing to pay a fee:
  • Mailing businesses — the markup is generally 15 to 25 percent.
  • Gas stations — surcharge often doubles the cost of a stamp.
  • USPS online — $1 fee to mail stamps to the Waco area.
If you don't want to pay a fee:
  • Some stores, including H-E-B grocery locations and Office Depot.
  • Some bank ATMs.
  • Automated Postal Center machines — available inside the lobbies of State Highway 6 and Westview post offices; only take credit or debit cards.
  • Rural carriers — sell to customers on their route.
  • By mail — Pick up a form at the post office or call for one; you mail in the money and they mail you back stamps.

In fact, the reason for the plan — the machines’ tendency to break down — is already at work here, Meyers said. “Out of service” signs on the machines are a common sight at many local postal branches.

Bottom line: Sooner or later, consumers who don’t look for alternatives will be forced to either wait in line or leave empty-handed.

“I can understand how that is frustrating for the customer,” Meyers said. “But we want consumers to understand there are several other options for purchasing postage stamps.”

The process of removing vending equipment from post offices nationwide began in October, Meyers said. The initiative is partly in response to declining machine sales and partly the result of the machines’ mechanical limitations, she said.

Many of the vending machines, which accept coins and dollar bills, are seven to 20 years old, Meyers said. One problem associated with that age is that currency has changed in recent years and the machines can’t catch counterfeit versions of some of the newer bills, she said.

Not worth the cost

But the main issue with the machines, Meyers said, is that they break fairly easily and are costly and difficult to repair because parts for them are no longer made. The only way local machines get repaired is if the postal service can scavenge usable parts from machines that have been taken out of service, she said.

Usually, the machines break because of problems associated with the coin slot, Meyers said. At the Bellmead branch, for example, a machine is under repair because someone tried to force two quarters into the slot at once, she said.

Slots often get jammed by children putting in gameroom tokens or Mexican pesos, she said. Folded or bent bills can also cause problems.

“You’d be surprised at what we pull out of there,” Meyers said. “And it damages them each time.”

The repeated repairs recently caused local postal officials to pull machines from area Wal-Mart stores, Meyers said. So far, no schedule has been set for removing the machines from local post offices, but it’s only a matter of time. Those that make the least money are likely to get yanked first, she said.

“Some only get $1 per day,” Meyers said.

So what’s a consumer to do?

At some post offices, one alternative is to use an Automated Postal Center. Located in the lobby near other vending machines, they’re different in that they only accept credit or debit cards. In Waco, however, they’re available only at the State Highway 6 and Westview stations.

The postal service also lets people buy stamps online at www.usps.com. The drawback: a small shipping fee. Having a book of stamps sent to a Waco address, for example, costs $1.

If you don’t mind paying a markup for convenience, gas stations and mailing businesses are a quick and easy option. Beware, though. Gas stations often charge as much as $1 per stamp — more than double the 41-cent face value.

At mailing businesses, the markup is usually 15 to 25 percent. Mail Boxes Etc. on North Valley Mills Drive charges $9.50 for a book of stamps. Pack & Mail on Lake Air Drive offers them for $10. At the post office, it would cost $8.20.

“We’re the ones who go stand in line,” said Pack & Mail owner Mike Thompson, explaining the fee. He added that many people apparently don’t mind paying a little extra for quick service because he sells 20 to 30 books of stamps a week.

The other option is to seek out places where stamps are available at face value. Office Depot and H-E-B grocery stores are two examples.

Some ATMs also carry them. If the ATM is owned by your bank or your bank reimburses ATM fees from competitors, it can be a fee-free way to buy them.

cculp@wacotrib.com

757-5744

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