Stamps May Kick Need for a Lick

POSTAGE. In its efforts to modernize, the US Postal Service revives effort to develop self-adhesive stamp

THE United States Postal Service has come up with a self-adhesive stamp that could put tongues to rest. Self-sticking ``EXTRAordinary Stamps'' were well received when test-marketed in 15 cities late last year, and in all likelihood will eventually go into nationwide circulation.

``This stamp responds to all the suggestions that we've gotten from the American public,'' says Jim Murphy, senior philatelic program specialist with the postal service. It also conforms to in-house mail-handling requirements, which wasn't the case in 1974, when a no-lick model didn't always adhere properly throughout the mail stream.

The US Postal Service (USPS) has historically used new stamps to cultivate a fresh look. But the self-adhesives with the colorful eagle-and-shield design are only one example of products and programs being developed to keep a progressive face on the nation's largest private employer.

There are also stamped envelopes bearing a three-dimensional, holographic design, sheetlets of self-adhesive stamps for use in automatic teller machines, drive-in post offices, and picture postal cards, a first in the USPS's 215-year existence.

Furthermore, the USPS has ventured into new revenue-generating areas, charging rental and user fees to commercial enterprises allowed to set up ``shop'' and advertise in post office lobbies.

In Seattle, customers of the Seafirst Bank can handle many transactions at automatic teller machines in post-office lobbies. By the end of May, credit-card-operated facsimile terminals will be available in 263 postal locations nationwide. And in many areas, post offices have begun selling such items as toy mail trucks, mailman teddy bears, stamp-motif sweatshirts, and other merchandise. (The USPS requires higher-than-normal pricing to avoid competition with established businesses.)

To improve its public relations, the postal service has also signed on as a corporate sponsor of the 1992 winter and summer Olympics.

Whether all this is progress or not is a moot point. Clearly the US Postal Service feels compelled to explore its options.

``By law we are chartered to break even - a tough financial challenge,'' US Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank said in a speech before Indianapolis's Economic Club earlier this year.

Toward that end, USPS has filed for a rate increase of about 20 percent, which will go into effect in February 1991 if recommended by the Postal Rate Commission, then approved by the Postal Service Board of Governors. Under this rate structure, postage on a first-class envelope would jump from 25 to 30 cents.

To some degree, the increase is intended to offset the cost of skyrocketing health benefits for 800,000 full-time and part-time employees. Mr. Frank also points to the $800 million the postal service had to contribute during the last two years to reduce the national deficit, even though USPS receives no tax dollars. And with negotiations set to begin this summer on a new labor contract, expenses could rise.

Savings, however, are anticipated as automation begins to scale back the work force. The extensive use of optical-character reading equipment and bar codes will, by 1995, save 100,000 work years or several billion dollars annually, according to Frank.

In tackling the mail-delivery frontiers of the '90s, the postal service hasn't neglected the humble stamp. Assistant Postmaster General Gordon C. Morison says the self-adhesive stamps are the most thoroughly researched and tested issue in US stamp history.

The project began in the spring of 1986. It actually revived an idea introduced in 1974, when the first peel-and-stick stamps enjoyed a short run.

The shortcomings of those ``Dove of Peace'' Christmas stamps were soon apparent. Corners lifted up, jamming processing equipment. And collectors were disappointed when the adhesive leached through.

The failed attempt nonetheless demonstrated the public's interest in the concept. ``During the next 15 years, we constantly had letters asking, `Why don't you work on the self-adhesive stamp?,'' says Mr. Murphy of the USPS.

Given the recent popularity of self-adhesive labels, the time was ripe to revive the project (Canada introduced self-adhesives last June, and Japan has also joined self-sticking stamp ranks).

The US Postal Service claims that it's solved all the former problems and even incorporated some new features. The stamps stick fast, don't discolor, seem impervious to high humidity, and come in sheets of eighteen 25-stamps that are easily folded into wallet-size booklets.

A special challenge was for research chemists to come up with a superior adhesive that didn't stick like flypaper on initial contact. ``When you put these stamps on an envelope,'' Murphy says, ``you have maybe 90 seconds to 2 minutes to remove or reposition them.'' After that, they bond permanently.

Since the adhesive is water soluble, philatelists can still remove the stamps for their collections. Die-cutting them onto backing sheets also reduces the risk of ripping, but may erode the aesthetic appeal for some purists.

``There is a certain sadness, I guess, when there are no perforations and the stamps are not engraved,'' Murphy acknowledges.

Keith Wagner, the executive director of the American Philatelic Society, says the new look grates on some collectors, though not all. ``It's hard to say there's any general feeling,'' he states. ``Basically stamp collecting is a hobby where you can collect what you want to collect.'' Hobbyists and nonhobbyists alike bought the self-adhesives when they went on sale last November - this despite a 50 surcharge for the special features.

``The initial production run [of 400 million booklets] was so small [by US postal standards] that the stamps basically had to shoulder the cost of 2 1/2 years of research and development,'' Murphy explains. He suspects the price could drop with a larger run, technological developments, and greater distance from the R&D period.

The postal service has thus far made no commitment to nationwide production and distribution. USPS has been compiling the results of a consumer questionnaire and trying to gather statistics on the number of self-adhesives sold (no provision was made for a recall of unbought stamps at the end of the official month-long trial). Many of the informal verbal reviews have been glowing, however. The lick-and-stick age, it appears, may be ending.

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