Postal 'inflation' -- here comes the 9-digit Zip Code

To the post office, it's a hope for cutting costs; to businesses, it means spending thousand of dollars to change mailing lists; and to individual Americans, it means four more numbers added to their lives.

The Expanded Zip Code, which tacks four new digits to existing five-digit codes, will begin appearing on mail as early as next February, says the US Postal Service, which is promoting the idea at a forum here for som 3,000 business and governmental executives.

Salvatore Gennaro, director of the Office of Zip code Expansion, told the National Postal Forum Sept. 8 that the nine-digit Zip Codes would make it possible for machines to "read" the numbers and sort each letter to the proper carrier route.

While the current five-digit code will take a letter to a local post office, The new digits will designate what blok a person lives on -- or even what floor of a building. As a result, the totla number of Zip codes will shoot up from 40000 to almost 20 million -- enouh to fill 30,000 pages.

Postal customers, who will recieve notice of their own new codes by next summer, will be able o call a toll-free telephone num is promising that callers will be answered after an average waiting time of 10 seconds.)

The post office reports little opposition to the nine-digit Zip Code, which was announced two years ago. But a congressional subcommitte headed by rep. richardson Preyer (D) of North Carolina is launching an 11-hour challenge to the four new numbers.

Americans have too many numbers to remember already, charges Congressman Preyer. He will chair a hearing Sept. 17 in the House Subcommittee on Government Information and Individual Rights. He also charges that the new Zip Codes will tempt businesses to target some neighborhoods "as rule out certain zip Code-holders from crdedit and other opportuniteis."

At the National Postal Forum this week reactions to the new zips were mixed. A representative for American Express said that his company is going "full force" to switch to the expanded code since it will mean more machines and fewer hands will mean more machines and fewer hands will be touching their maillings.Advertising brochures will arrive less soiled, he explained.

A spokesman for the United Service Automobile association, an insurance group which generates 42 million pieces of mail a year, said that it would cost his company about $300,000 to convert to the new Zip Codes but that he saw advantages such as more accurate targeting of markets.

Officials of smaller companies expressed doubts, however. "Will the post office give us a reduction to go to this tremendous expense?" Asked a Birmingham , Ala., banker at the postal conference.

Although postal officials have offered no specific incentive, Postmaster General William F. Bolger told the forum that users of the nine-digit zip will have rate reductions.

Moreover, postal officials are still uncertain about how much will cost to buy the advanced-technology machinery needed to use the new Zip Codes. They have recently tested six different "optical character reader" machines which could process mail by "reading" zip codes. The new machines, all made by foreign manufacturers, would cost in the range of $500,000 each.

H. Currie Boswell, general manager for mechanization at the Postal Service's development division, said that no decision has been made about how much equipment will be bought. He predicted that the machinery would pay for itself in one to two years in labers who now sort by hand.

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