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The Skinny on Slim Jims (November 2008 Update)

Many catalogers are trying to determine what to do with slim jims. You have received several previous reports from us on slim jims, and we promised to provide an update this fall. (“Slim jims” is industry slang for digest sized catalogs, folded self-mailers and slim-tabbed catalogs that are expected to ride on the USPS’s automated letter sorting equipment and thereby get an automated letter rate—a substantial discount to the traditional catalog or “flats” postage rates.)

First, a brief historical background: Recall that the PRC suggested catalogers simply convert to a slim jim format as a lower cost alternative to the sharply higher catalog mailing rates that became effective in summer 2007 in the wake of the disastrous R2006-1 rate increases. While many catalogers did not want to address the cost and brand implications of reformatting their books, some did; predictably, the volume of slim jims in the mail stream increased.

The increased volume made it obvious that some slim jims were causing “train wrecks” on high speed sorting equipment—the very equipment on which they are presumed to ride, justifying mailing at the lower letter rates. In March 2008, the USPS issued a Federal Register advance notice of changes to slim jim regulations, effectively giving industry a “head’s up” that things may change. Those formats that do not run well on the equipment would not be eligible for automation or machinable letter prices in the future. This means that they will need to be mailed as nonmachinable letters or the applicable flats postage rate as appropriate.

ACMA responded formally to the USPS’s Federal Register advance notice (anticipated changes to sizes and configuration of what can be mailed at lower rates). You can see our comments here:

ACMA responded formally to the USPS’s Federal Register advance notice (anticipated changes to sizes and configuration of what can be mailed at lower rates). You can see our comments here:

The original Federal Register advance notice can be found at: 
or, if you prefer a pdf format:

The USPS and the mailing industry agreed to collaborate on a series of tests to determine what characteristics make some slim jims “machinable” while others simply do not run on letter sorters. Final rules are expected to be published in February 2009 with an effective date in May. If your slim jim is not machinable, it will be charged nonmachinable letter prices assuming it falls within letter size guidelines. The problem for catalogers is that we have longer planning and production lead times. If we are going to be forced to pay higher rates for slim jims, we would rather have larger format books with more square inches for merchandise.

Nothing is final at this point. However, we want to provide you with some guidance based on what we are now hearing, as an aid to planning. (ACMA members are getting more details on these issues. If you would like to have this information, please contact any ACMA member or the ACMA office directly.)

Our best guess is that many of the changes suggested by the Federal Register notice will become official. This is not because the USPS is oblivious to the impact on catalogers; they simply cannot have the tail wag the dog. Slim jims jamming equipment is clearly not acceptable. Plus, the machinery is fully deployed and was not engineered to handle a thicker slim jim specification or mail pieces with the variation of attributes we are now mailing. The USPS understands the value of diversity in the mail and was clearly “pushing the envelope” trying to get a little more out of the automated letter mail equipment, but it looks like some of this will turn out to be unworkable.

Expect additional tabs on each booklet with specific tab requirements covering the material, placement and configuration of the tabs to be used. Expect that the perforated clear poly tabs in popular use today will be prohibited in favor of specific sized paper tabs. Expect that effective page count will be limited by new lower weight and thickness requirements that mean lighter thinner booklets than are mailable today. Also expect heavier cover stock. The equipment may score and mar both front and back booklet covers, so mailers may need to accept more handling marks than typical on flat catalogs that goes through different processing.

Will the situation be altered significantly in the future to make this a viable format for catalogers? Not likely. As noted, the equipment in place serves the USPS well for the vast majority of its letter mail volume. Catalogers will need to look elsewhere to solve the basic upheaval caused by the R2006-1 decision that fundamentally altered the economics of cataloging … well before we got waylaid by the recession.

Bottom line: slim jims cannot be expected to be the cost effective substitute to severely higher catalog postage effective last year. In other words, the pressing problem of fundamentally changed economics for catalogers remains unsolved. Based on anticipated changes required to the format, slim jims are not expected to be the solution to this dilemma although the USPS seems committed fully to extending the capabilities of automated equipment by ongoing testing to identify those characteristics that provide the greatest flexibility for automated letter-size products. New standards will allow many types of pieces but catalogers must work with the USPS to find other ways to affordably use mail. Of course, unless a resolution can be found to the issues, catalogers will migrate to other media channels, taking much needed mail out of the postal system. ACMA continues to work on this issue so we leave you with this: If mail is important to you—and this obviously still includes all catalogers—then get involved with someone working on your behalf to address the situation. We’d love to see you become active in ACMA but we certainly will partner with any company or group also working to resolve this continuing crisis. The message here is, do something. The USPS is very customer focused these days. Be part of the rate paying constituency they hear from! Please also support those who are working to support you. Speaking at least for ACMA, this work cannot continue without you!

Please call with questions or to give us your specific thoughts, ideas and solutions. For more information: or 401-529-8183

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