Lugging boxes to the post office and buying postage is the inevitable conclusion to nearly every successful auction. With the introduction of e-postage, however, shippers can buy postage online and print stamps from their own PCs--meaning auction sellers can complete the transaction without ever having to wait in long lines to buy postage.
With e-postage, shippers buy postage online, then print it directly onto envelopes using their ink-jet or laser printers. The e-postage "stamp" doesn't look like a stamp at all: It appears as a two-dimensional bar code, a rectangle filled with tiny dots, that denotes the amount of postage as well as delivery information that can be decoded by the postal service's computers.
Two companies that offer electronic postage are Stamps.com and E-Stamp. Aimed primarily at businesses as an alternative to office postage meters, these services also can be a great solution for high-volume auction sellers, too.
In order to buy postage with E-Stamp, you'll need special hardware that connects to your PC's printer port. E-Stamp calls it an "electronic vault," but computer geeks call it a "dongle." When you buy postage from the Web site, its value is saved in the dongle--pardon me, vault.
E-Stamp charges a fee of 10 percent on top of the price of postage. So if you want $165 in postage to send 500 first-class letters, E-Stamp charges an additional $16.50. (You can save money by buying lots of postage at once, since there is a $25 maximum and $5 minimum surcharge per purchase.)
You can use E-Stamp to send mail via first class, priority, express mail, and parcel post. As you use the E-Stamp software to print envelopes, the cost of postage is subtracted from the amount remaining in your electronic vault. You don't need to be online to print postage, only to buy it. You've got to buy the dongle gadget, which comes in a $50 starter kit. ($50 in "free" postage is also included, so the deal evens out.) To use E-Stamp, you'll need Windows 95, 98, 2000, or NT 4 and an ink-jet or laser printer. There isn't a Mac version of E-Stamp.
The only other e-postage company that has received the post office's stamp of approval is Stamps.com. This service has some significant differences from E-Stamp. Most notably, Stamps.com doesn't use an "electronic vault" to store postage. You don't need to buy any special hardware--all you need to do is download Stamps.com's free software. The downside is that you must be online to print postage.
As is the case with E-Stamp, Stamps.com users can send letters and packages via first class, priority mail, express mail, and parcel post. Certified mail and delivery confirmation are also available. To use the service, you'll need a computer that runs Windows 95, 98, 2000, or NT 4.0 (again, there's no Mac version) and a laser or ink-jet printer.
The service offers two pricing plans: the "simple" plan adds a surcharge of 10 percent to the cost of postage you buy, with a monthly minimum of $1.99. (New users get $20 in free postage to start.) The "power" plan, for heavy users, charges a monthly flat-rate service fee of $15.99 to print an unlimited amount of postage, and new users receive $40 in free postage. Check out the Auction Manager Auction Toolkit for more information.
With both Stamps.com and E-Stamp, you'll need a credit card to pay for postage, and a postal scale to determine the amount of postage you'll need. Both sites sell postage scales and other essential shipping supplies.