Round the square

Great article in today’s Wall Street Journal:

 Don’t Be a Square

At the Post Office —

There’s a Surcharge

Card Makers Feel Boxed In

By Rules Favoring Rectangles;

Mr. Friedman’s ‘Debacle’

 

By BARRY NEWMAN

November 15, 2007; Page A1

BUFFALO, N.Y. —

The square has four equal
sides and four right angles. It is a regular shape. To the U.S. Postal Service,
however, the square is “unusual.” Its sorting machines, built for
oblongs, can’t find the address on a square envelope. People have to do it.
That’s why the post office imposes the square surcharge.

The square surcharge has been around since machine sorting
began in 1979, yet even those who knew about it rarely knew how many stamps to
put on a square letter. Postal clerks often didn’t know, either, so square
letters mostly got delivered anyway.

Then last May, the post office launched a new
“shape-based” initiative. Mailing a one-ounce oblong costs 41 cents.
A one-ounce square costs 58 cents, including a 17-cent surcharge for squareness.
At a Manhattan post office not long ago, a window clerk named Thomas Merritt took one look at
a square envelope and said, “Nonmachinable. I would not use that shape,
period.”

The U.S. Postal Service rolled out machine sorting in 1979,
but the equipment, designed for oblong envelopes, can’t find the address on
square ones. The result? Hand-sorting.

 Among square-envelope advocates, such thoughts promise
little joy to the world, best wishes or happy anniversaries. Alan Friedman, for
one, is sending the post office no valentines. Mr. Friedman, who is 53 years
old, owns Great Arrow Graphics, a small company housed in a former
windshield-wiper factory here in Buffalo,
Great Arrow makes greeting cards. Square greeting cards.

 “Squares,” Mr. Friedman said one rainy Tuesday,
“are the most current and most exciting product in paper
communications.” He was on his shop floor, where young printmakers were
mixing inks, inking silk-screens and stacking racks of cards for Christmas.
Several cards had drawings on them of round ornaments. “Look at the
interplay between the circle and the square,” said Mr. Friedman, holding
one up. “It’s the aesthetic, the balance. Such a compelling format.”

Of the seven billion greeting cards Americans buy each year,
squares are a minority. At the giants, Hallmark Cards Inc. and American
Greetings Corp., they occupy a remote corner of the business. But small
companies that rely on them, like Mr. Friedman’s, feel they’re victims of
postal shapism. It’s bad enough when grandma’s birthday card comes back stamped
“postage due.” It’s worse when grandma herself has to pay the extra
17 cents. Afraid of deflating card-customer cheeriness, some card shops are
chucking their squares into the circular file.

“Square cards went over big right away,” says
Stacy Bock, a San Francisco sales rep for Great Arrow. “Then the post office cracked down and there
was this spasm. People had bad experiences with square cards. If you put a
stigma on something long enough, retailers aren’t going to deal with it
anymore.” Ms. Bock adds: “The poor square. It’s such a beautiful
thing.”

At Oblong Books & Music in the downstate village of Millerton, N.Y., the card rack held only
one square birthday card on a recent Sunday. It was imported from the United Kingdom,
where the Royal Mail still recognizes equilateral equality.

“Squares are nice, but they’re too much trouble,”
said Oblong’s manager, Lisa Wright, “We’ve had to phase them out. It’s
really very obnoxious of the post office to charge extra for squares.”

That was the sentiment the Greeting Card Association tried
to convey, cordially, at the Postal Regulatory Commission’s hearings in Washington last year on
the push for shape-based postage. It called on Andrea Sue Liss, founder of
Hannah Handmade Cards in Evanston, Ill., who testified to “the novelty of
the square” and its “basic appeal to people beyond what they might
put into words.”

Plato, Ms. Liss told the commission, “regarded the
square as being absolutely beautiful in itself.” The Romans, she noted,
based many buildings “on the geometry of the square and its diagonal, the
ad quadratum.” She quoted Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology,
who wrote: “The frequency with which the square and the circle appear must
not be overlooked.” Squares, said Ms. Liss, embody “traditional
symbolic meanings,” including honesty, stability, integrity, morality and
solidarity.

At the Postal Service, however, squares embody extra
handling. Its official philosophy, derived from decades of debate with mass
mailers, is that envelopes needing extra handling need extra postage, 58-cent
stamps in the case of square letters.

At Great Arrow Graphics, these tidings weren’t glad. From 60
square cards for Christmas, Mr. Friedman’s silk-screeners are down to nine this
year. Other greeting-worthy occasions have been fully oblongated: for instance,
death. “Nobody wants sympathy cards returned,” says Mr. Friedman.
“We don’t mess with sympathy.” In his sympathy line, only pet
sympathy is still square.

Some square Great Arrow designs are being printed now on
oblong cards. For those remaining, the shop has devised an oblong envelope with
a middle pocket that squares slip neatly into. A 41-cent stamp is all they
need. Mr. Friedman’s square-Christmas-card sets with their new oblong envelopes
are going on sale this season packed in oblong boxes.

“We’re just trying to avoid the whole debacle,” he
says. Yet Mr. Friedman is a man of goodwill whose thoughts about the Postal
Service are as kind as those expressed in his greeting cards — with an added
twinkle of bemused curiosity. Which is why he was happy to leave his shop early
this day for a drive across town and a visit to the USPS Buffalo Processing and
Distributiion Center. “The post office is caring,” he said, walking up a
ramp from the parking lot. “It embraces its neighbors. One of its quaint
beauties is that you never quite know what’s going to happen. If everything
worked like clockwork, it wouldn’t be enough fun.” He passed through a set
of doors into a 500,000-square-foot room and shook hands with Tony
Mazurkiewicz, manager of in-plant support.

“I’m fascinated to see what makes square envelopes so
hard for you,” said Mr. Friedman. Handing him a shape-based-pricing
template, Mr. Mazurkiewicz said, “It’s the machines.”

For an hour, he took Mr. Friedman down a trail of belts,
bins and troughs, from the dual-pass rough cull, past the advanced facer
cancelers to the delivery bar-code readers. Every step had reject pockets. Mr.
Mazurkiewicz reached in and pulled out the squares.

“Wouldn’t you think,” Mr. Friedman asked,
“that a machine could somehow know in an instant if a piece of mail needs
to be rotated to read the address? Oops! Upside down. Turn it around. OK.”

“In fact, they don’t,” said Mr. Mazurkiewicz.
“A square is like an SUV turning a corner. It could be a rollover.”

Rectangular envelopes are always knocked down by sorting
machines onto one of two long, stable edges. Ink detectors find the stamps:
front or back, upper right or lower left. It then takes only two steps — flip
and turn — to line them up for a computer to read addresses and spray on bar
codes.

But squares land on any one of four edges, not two. So for
half of them, mathematically, finding addresses takes four steps. When the
machines fail, humans get involved — at a cost, Mr. Mazurkiewicz explained, of
$52-per-thousand envelopes instead of $4.

“Couldn’t you absorb the cost?” Mr. Friedman
asked, moving along to the manual-sorting area, where senior clerks were
slipping nonmachinable squares into old-time cubbyholes. As Mr. Mazurkiewicz
began discussing postal pricing and aspect-ratio differentials, Mr. Friedman’s focus
seemed to drift from his shape-based worries. His eyes settled on the clerks
and the cubbyholes.

“I love that letters are touched by people here,”
he said.

“It costs more money,” said Mr. Mazurkiewicz, but
his guest had wandered off to gaze at a procession of postal trays spiraling
upward on a blue conveyor. “The ballet of the mail,” Mr. Friedman
said. He watched for a few more moments and then, with feeling, he added:
“The post office really is a very beautiful organization.”

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