USPS Cracks Down on Online-Generated Postage Dates

Like other small business owners, I’ve learned to expect three things from the United States Postal Service:

  1. A 5-15 minute wait in line
  2. Useless tracking information, and a complete lack of help when packages do get lost (about 1 in every 500!)
  3. Incompetence of approximately half of all postal employees (figure worsens when handed international packages…)

Even customers know better than to expect tracking information for USPS First Class and Priority Mail packages—this luxury only comes from UPS, FedEx, etc. The USPS cannot afford to replace their practically useless Delivery Confirmation service with an actual tracking system. Nor do they have the resources to develop an API that would allow businesses to automate shipments (like UPS/FedEx). There’s a single reason I stick with the USPS: Unmatched prices. However, the USPS is in financial trouble (and has been for years). Given the Great Recession, combined with ever increasing competition from alternative shipping carriers, I’d hoped that the USPS would finally step into the 21st Century, technologically. This has not been the case.

Last Monday, I stepped into a local post office and handed 6 postage-paid, domestic packages to the postal clerk. She looked over each, then stated, “These 5 cannot be shipped. They have the wrong date.”

As usual, I’d used PayPal’s Multi-Order Shipping tool to print out orders on Sunday evening. ‘The date is no problem,’ I said confidently. ‘I’ve been doing this for three years. The date is meaningless, but if you insist, I can mark out Sunday’s dateĀ  and write in today’s date by hand.’ I picked up the pen on the counter and proceeded to change 6/6/10 to 6/7/10 on each of the rejected packages.

“Let me get the postmaster,” she replied.

The postmaster stepped up and had made up her mind before even looking at my packages. She handed me a clearly unofficial document which read:

“Accepting packages that have stale ship dates on them could affect our delivery scores. This information from usps.com explains the correct process. The same policy would be in place for other pcpostage labels such as paypal, stamps.com, endicia.com, etc.

You must mail your item on the date that you selected for your Click-N-Ship label; this is known as the Ship Date. An electronic record is generated on that date indicating that your mail piece has been mailed. Packages shipped with labels that have incorrect Ship Dates will be returned to the sender and will not be eligible for a refund. If you are unable to use the label, you should request a refund within ten (10) days of the printed label and create another label with the correct Ship Date.

Your online label can be used only as it has been printed, without any alterations. If you find an error in your label, print a new label with the correct information and request a refund. Any mail piece which has a manually altered online label will be returned.”

I argued for another minute before leaving. As I made my way out, the poor postal clerk quietly told me that it was a “new policy” of “cracking down on Click-N-Ship labels”. Technically, nothing had changed; USPS’s shipping requirements have always stated that packages must be shipped on the day for which they are printed. While PayPal’s Multi-Order shipping system allows selection of the “Mailing Date”, it is obvious that labels postmarked on Sunday cannot possibly be shipped until Monday. For the past three years, postal employees and postmasters have told me, assuredly, that this was not a problem. And it hadn’t been, until last week.

PayPal Multi-Order Shipping "Mailing Date" Selection
Proper Selection of Mailing Date (PayPal)

Outraged, I drove home and immediately Google’d the document. Nothing came up, so I called 1-800-ASK-USPS to get to the bottom of the issue. I was told that it was indeed a recent change, and that I was correct: USPS made NO ANNOUNCEMENT WHATSOEVER of their changed policy. Why not? Well, it isn’t a change—they are suddenly enforcing a rule that has always been in effect. The guy further stated, “I don’t like the change either, and they really should have made an announcement.”

The next day, I went to a different local post office. None of the clerks had seen the unofficial document (although they were aware of the new policy), so I asked to speak with their postmaster. This fellow was quite helpful; he furnished the following e-mail printout, dated April 28, 2010:

Internal USPS E-Mail, Subject: FW: Stale pcPostage dates

After a lengthy discussion with the postmaster, a self-described “postal nerd”, it was clear that the USPS is just trying to survive. They’re losing money, customers are displeased with Delivery Confirmation, and of course, USPS also gets blamed when some businesses print out labels several days before actually dropping them off. Thus, the USPS has decided to reject all packages with “stale ship dates” in effort to improve public opinion.

I have several problems with this:

  1. Up until April 28, 2010, the USPS didn’t care when I dropped off my packages. USPS should have made an official announcement. Factoring in labor, my business lost over $200 last week due to USPS’s failure to communicate. More disturbingly, my customers experienced a 1 day delay in shipping—we pride ourselves on same-day shipments.
  2. USPS knows that labels printed online are rarely shipped the day they are marked. Anyone who has checked the Delivery Confirmation number of a freshly prepared shipment has seen this blurb from usps.com’s tracking system:

    Label/Receipt Number: #### #### #### #### #### ##
    Status: Electronic Shipping Info Received

    The U.S. Postal Service was electronically notified by the shipper on June ##, 2010 to expect your package for mailing. This does not indicate receipt by the USPS or the actual mailing date. Delivery status information will be provided if / when available. No further information is available for this item

    This statement has served its job well enough for years. Does USPS really expect to increase customer satisfaction by suddenly refusing their packages?

  3. USPS is built upon the principle that postage is as good as currency. A 44 cent stamp is worth always 44 cents, regardless of the day or the year. Until recently, USPS had maintained this perspective for postage printed online: Labels printed for $2.09 on Sunday were perfectly valid no matter the calendar date. But this is apparently no longer true. On very rare occasion, traffic has prevented me from making my daily post office visit in time. When this happens, I’d toss the packages into the drop-box instead. Now, I can no longer use drop-boxes after hours! I must cancel and re-print the shipping labels, then explain to customers why they have just received a shipment cancellation and 2nd shipment notice. And my poor accountant! All in all, this could cost my small business thousands of dollars in labor.

  4. Historically, USPS’s instructions mandated that online labels be used “only as it has been printed, without any alterations” because the digital barcode tells the postal system where the package is headed. A computer will ignore handwritten address changes on a digital label. The computer does not care when the label was printed. It only cares where the package is going. Hence, the “Electronic Shipping Info Received” statement cited above. In other words, USPS has deceptively manipulated an old policy in attempt to combat financial losses. Way to go, USPS.

In conclusion, USPS has made another poor choice and will continue to lose money and business. If they really wished to improve customer satisfaction, they would take example from UPS and FedEx: Customers want fine, friendly service, and REAL tracking information. Then this whole issue would be a moot point, since it would be clear when a package was physically accepted by the post office. But alas, the USPS is a federal entity and is not bound to the same expectations as a capitalistic business…

Anyway, fellow users of PayPal.com/Stamps.com/Endicia.com/Click-N-Ship should be aware that USPS has begun looking at the printed date on internet shipping labels, so you better get it right.

128 Replies to “USPS Cracks Down on Online-Generated Postage Dates

  1. I sell on ebay as well. Today I have no idea why two packages were not picked up, there was a paper with a bar code on it left, so I assumed it’s because I put tape over most of the bar code, as well as over the deliv. conf. number, because I use plain paper and if rain gets onto it, then it would make the printer’s ink run and then be unreadable. As far as the shipping date on the packages, you can print out ahead of time and just choose the shipping date to be the next day or whenever you plan to ship out. Anyway, you’ve helped me to know that I have to reprint new deliv. conf. numbers for my packages and not just put them out again with reprinted today’s numbers. I have to cancel those and buy new ones for each package. They used to ship yesterdays today if I left them out. Blessings on everybody’s businesses that are represented here in this blog and thanks for the article, it’s comforting to see none of us are alone in any of these things, there are others who experience similar things. I wish everyone better and the best with it all though! :+)

  2. I run a a small business remotely: i.e. I am not often present. I hired a gal to manage my shipping with USPS. I have discovered that she is printing shipping labels and the packages do not show up as being shipped for many days! We use ONLY Click N Ship which provides tracking. Now I have angry customers (they ALSO get the shipment notice!) So is my employee, in her attempt to convince me and my customers that a package is shipped committing fraud? I sincerely doubt the carrier and the local PO is failing to scan the packages! Since packages are scanned every step and they do not show up for days, I doubt it is the fault of the PO! Most of the time the packages eventually show up as scanned several days later (I have no problems with USPS itself: they do an excellent job 99.9% of the time.)

    1. Yes your employee is only creating the label. The post office is not in possession of the item until it is scanned. She is not committing fraud. Simply not shipping it when she is apparently supposed to.

  3. Very interesting, this original post was 6 years ago. I’ve never had this issue come up with me until last week (been selling on Ebay for 12 years). Same scenario, explained that I had been doing it for years no problem. Totally insane policy, I always have them scan it in so I have proof that I actually mailed it, so the policy is dumb in that their system shows when I dropped it off. I just walked out and went to another, smaller post office and they took it no problem.

  4. Practical blog post , I am thankful for the insight . Does someone know where I might obtain a blank PS 3801 form to complete ?

  5. It isn’t the day you “print” the label. When you print via Paypal, there is a drop down box for you to pick the shipment day. If you know you will not ship until Monday, select Monday. YES there are some large Post Offices open on Sundays. YES it matters what day you select, it tells the buyer what day to expect their package. It almost amazes me that someone would treat the issue so lightly “it doesn’t really matter when a package ships”. I can have a package in the mail Saturday and my customer will have it Monday morning. If I putz around and wait to ship it till Monday, that pushes delivery back two whole days until Wednesday. Maybe you are selling things that people don’t really need. I sell things people buy because they need them yesterday.

  6. Click and ship is designed to steal money – put simply – and to create chaos overall and to maximize work for everyone including the post office.

    We just learned that 50 packages we mailed today were dates for tomorrow. Solely for the purpose of theft and creating maximum chaos and work for everyone, none of those packages will track. Instead the packages will just become lost in the system for up to a month. Since the contents are dated, we will have to throw all of them away, plus refill the orders. We will lost the postage costs and product costs – but furious customers when their packaged don’t track.

    There is only one reason the post office does this – THEFT. Taking money for exactly NO service at all. And it is deliberate. They can see if the date is wrong when they scan it so COULD refuse the packages. But instead they have programmed their scanners to deliberately accept wrong dated Click n Ship so they can steal the postage. There is exactly NO reason they would accept a package and treat it as if postage wasn’t paid – when it was – but for theft.

    DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT USING THE POST OFFICE FOR AMAZON. Ebay or Etsy. If this had been Amazon orders our Amazon account would be closed or seized for 90 days because the Post Office will falsely show we never shipped the product. Use Click n Ship for any of those companies and you WILL lose your account – even if just because the post office “forgot” to scan your packages. That lands on you. Does that happen? Absolute. Their mistake destroys your business – literally puts you out of business. Amazon, Ebay and Etsy are not tolerant of late shipping – even if the post office’s fault (which you can’t prove).
    The USPS now is really just a division of Amazon for Amazon Prime in terms of customer relations. It does not care about anyone else.
    Of course, this is theft GREAT for the post office which will 1.) keep the postage while 2.) refusing to deliver the packages.
    Simply it is theft by the post office – and a theft that could literally destroy your business getting you banned from both Amazon, Ebay, Etsy and the others. Is it worth it to lose your entire business trying to save $1 by not using UPS or FedEx?
    DO NOT USE CLICK AND SHIP.

  7. While I get the issue with date accuracy, am I the only one who has an issue with the click n ship site? In mobile web view, you can’t select a different date. The ship date field is simply not shown. You have to “View as Desktop” to get a page where the Ship Date field shows up to be changed. In mobile view, even in the label summary where it shows today’s date, if you click Edit you just get the page to change the shipping address, but no date field. Been that way for at least a year when I first got bit by the ship date issue.

    If I’m just blindly missing it or it’s on another page that you go through in mobile view, I’d love to be proven wrong. Feedback to USPS.com hasn’t exactly caused anything to change.

    (Also annoying that you can’t do 1st class mail from Click N Ship anymore either, but that’s another issue for another day.)

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