Online postage adventure

The US Postal Service had a great idea: selling mailing labels online, postage included, and letting customers print the labels from the comfort of their homes. As much as I love the idea, I ran into a lot of problems when actually using the service.

This Monday was the first time that I created a mailing label online. I entered my shipping information four times before I was finally able to print out a mailing label, at which point I paid more than double the usual price for postage. Happy customer? Not really…

The first time I filled out the form, I ran into a question about weight, with separate fields for pounds and ounces. This format implied that I needed an answer accurate to within about an ounce (no, I didn’t have a postal scale lying around). I determined that my cell phone was 2.7 ounces and, after much fiddling with strings and coins, determined that my package weighed a bit less than the 2.7 ounce cell phone. I rounded up a bit and said that my package was 3 ounces. Wouldn’t it have been nice to know that any package under one pound would be the same price?

After providing the weight and a variety of other information such as sender address, recipient address, and how much insurance I wanted (with no indication of the cost), I moved to the next page. This was my first indication that printing my own label would actually cost me extra money: Media Mail was not on the list of service options. I chose the cheapest option, Priority Mail, agreeing to pay more than double the usual cost of shipping a CD. Perhaps I was lured in by the thought that I was almost done, how far from the truth…

The next page asked for my username and password. This disgusted me even more than being asked to pay double. Of course USPS needs me to have a permanent account before they can sell me some postage. That makes about as much sense as carrying around a Kash n’ Karry savings card just to buy items at the marked price.

I went through the process of creating an account, capitalizing the first letter of my password and changing a punctuation mark into a number so this silly site would consider my password secure… and then it wants me to create security questions. If I forget the bizarre password that they made me create, I can still access my account just by telling them my mother’s maiden name? Don’t they know that such information is publicly available? I type random keys after each security question so no one can use this backdoor into my new and totally unnecessary account, then I move on to the next page, expecting to enter my credit card information… only to find myself back on page 1. USPS forgot everything I had told it about my package!

After the second time entering all that information, I had to stop partway through to take care of something. Apparently leaving the keyboard for a couple minutes is enough for my session to time out – back to the beginning again.

On the third time entering all that information, I actually got to the point of creating a PDF of my mailing label… and Acrobat Reader froze up. After so many months of good performance by Acrobat, and after so many problems with the USPS site, you can bet I won’t blame Acrobat when one more thing goes wrong!

And on the fourth time it just worked – paying double the cost of Media Mail, of course.

Strangely enough, I was not discouraged by this experience. Rather, I was determined to master the art of online postage, saving myself countless trips to the post office. The adventure continued! A couple days later, I needed to mail a PHP/MySQL book that I had sold on Amazon Marketplace. Trying USPS’s online service, Click-N-Ship, wasn’t even a consideration, but I knew that there were several 3rd party vendors for the same service. Surely one of them would offer better service. The four options were eBay, stamps.com, endicia, and Pitney Bowes.

eBay was the only one of the four vendors that did not require monthly fees (I am wary of free trials, especially risk-free trials with lots of incentive gifts). eBay also doesn’t require any software installation (viruses, registry corruption, security vulnerabilities…) Unfortunately, eBay also requires that payments be made via PayPal, which would have taken too long to arrange. None of the other vendors really stood out, so I took the next on the list: stamps.com.

Stamps.com requires a monthly fee for using the service. I signed up for their free, 30-day, no-risk trial, expecting to receive a bunch of free stamps and a postal scale in the mail. My suspicion was aroused when I realized that cancelling my no-risk trial would involve a phone call. I was imagining being put on hold forever, so I tried calling the number before signing up. I reached an automated system which asked the reason for my call (cancelling an account) then asked for my phone number. It told me that this phone number did not correspond to one of their accounts. Could their account cancellation actually be semi-automated? My suspicions were significantly reduced, and I finished the account activation… then they asked me to download their software.

Downloading software from a company that I don’t trust… my suspicion was back and stronger than ever. It could be adware. It could be designed to steal passwords. It could have accidental errors that cause registry corruption or create security vulnerabilities on my computer. I don’t install software lightly! I started searching for reviews of the stamps.com software and found the following gems at download.com:

“You pay for what you get! You Definatly pay!”

“False advertising, promises come slowly”

“Nothing Good about stamps.com unless your a millionaire!”

“After waiting for 45 minutes I finally got a hold of someone. After canceling I asked a bout my $15 refund request, and come to find out I will not be getting my money back! I have to have an exsisting account in order to get a refund. I have just been robbed! $15 isn’t a lot, but my husband and I work hard for our money! Don’t open an account with stamps.com!”

“Can sign up online, but have to call to cancel. First 3 tries I got busy signals. I called again and got through their menu only to be placed on death-hold. Still on hold, it’s been 45 minutes, listening to god-awful muzak all the while. They are trying to get me to hang up, but it’s worth not paying the monthly fee to hang in there and be done with these people. Wish I’d read these reviews before I signed up. 😦 Don’t sign up, you’ll regret it.”

At this point, my interest in online postage was at an all-time low. I just wanted to drop that account before ending up like all the others. To stamps.com’s credit, I was actually able to cancel in about ten minutes. Maybe they are starting to learn a lesson about how to treat customers, but I was done experimenting. It was time to get this job done the old fashioned way.

The nearest USPS post office was 1.5 miles away. A few minutes in line… another minute for a real person to take my package, charge me regular price ($2.07 for a 1.92 lb package by Media Mail), and take care of everything… A physical post office took care of me in less time than it took to fill out a form online. I know that websites are a better technology, that they could easily beat the convenience of a physical post office, but it’s amazing what so many web designers will do to ruin a customer’s experience online.

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1 Comment

Filed under Personal

One response to “Online postage adventure

  1. Sometimes dealing directly with a real person has its merits. I love tech toys and gadgets, the internet, and anything that makes tasks more convenient, but obviously when it comes to customer service and simplicity, not every system makes the cut. This example is particularly egregious. I will certainly take your advice and deal directly with the humans for this particular service. Nice write-up, Eric.

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