After working in an antiquated mailroom in a windowless basement of a dorm, Linda Barrows was thrilled to occupy space in the brand new, centrally located Center for Communication and Creative Media on the campus of Champlain College in Vermont.
Her process has been upgraded as much as her digs. In the “old” days, her team sorted all mail by hand.
“When packages came in, we had a clipboard and printed out a sheet that would hold the names, who the packages were going to, who it was coming from, and the date it came in,” says Barrows, the mailroom and switchboard manager.
She would handwrite “you’ve got mail” slips for student mailboxes. Packages were kept in a mailroom in a tiny closet.
Now, the mailboxes are gone, tracking and notifications have gone digital, and students pick up mail at the center.
The mailroom is becoming a more visible and important part of auxiliary services at colleges across the country, with some institutions overhauling their facilities completely to accommodate the new technology that streamlines service. But many campus mail centers have a long way to go before reaching that 21st century standard.
One piece of evidence: Since Vanderbilt University’s 2015 mail center remodel, Mickey Anglea, associate director for business services, has gotten more than 60 inquiries from other schools. “They’re all looking at ways to improve service to the customer,” says Anglea. Not surprisingly, pieces of regular mail are way down.
But the extreme upsurge in package deliveries creates big challenges. Vanderbilt processed 195,000 packages in 2016, compared to 80,000 in 2008. The volume surges in the fall, as students order books—and everything from sheets to clothing to phones—online. Why pack and travel with items that could just meet you on campus?
The mailroom at East Tennessee State University sees four to five times the packages each fall compared to the rest of the year, says Don McCarty, director of postal and passport services. For most mailrooms, managing the barrage of boxes is a processing nightmare.
With the help of technology, sophisticated package notification and pickup solutions, and external partners, however, campus are working to meet the challenges of serving students in the age of Amazon.
Campus mailroom do’s and don’ts
- DON’T forget to plan for the move-in rush. Today’s students are more likely to order dorm necessities online for on-campus delivery than bring all those items along at the beginning of the year.
- DO adopt an efficient technology-based system for streamlining package receiving, notification and tracking. Processing packages should involve students automatically getting notified that it’s time to stop by the mailroom.
- DON’T underestimate the value of automated pick-up options. Smart locker systems not only save staff time at the mailroom window, but also save students the aggravation of having to wait in lines or go only during business hours.
Signed, sealed, delivered
One. Box. At. A. Time.
Using a DOS-based system, that was how Haverford College in Pennsylvania processed packages, says Geoffrey Labe, director of conferences/events and campus center services at the 1,200-student school. At peak times, printing or writing out paper slips and getting them into mailboxes for eventual pickup could take days.
And it left an unfathomable amount of packages to languish, unclaimed.
A few years ago, eager for change, Labe found Pitney Bowes’ SendSuite, a handheld-device-based system for scanning packages via a barcode. “Every time a package is processed, the student gets an email saying that package is available for pick up,” he says. Students sometimes arrive within minutes, scanning their IDs to retrieve the package.
The mail center also got revamped from the bottom up. Old metal immovable shelves were replaced with shelving units on wheels. Those units have barcodes showing where particular packages are being held until students retrieve them from the mail window.
To accommodate the inevitable package avalanche at the beginning of each semester, Labe thinks outside the box: He’ll rent a truck for a few weeks and have it parked at a nearby loading dock. Many institutions, including Vanderbilt and East Tennessee State, place smart locker systems outside the mail centers for 24/7 access.
McCarty reports that East Tennessee’s sophisticated package locker system from TZ Limited also scans packages when they arrive and at pickup. The university’s 4,400 students get access via an app or their ID card, and the lockers—with 140 doors of various sizes—can hold more than 350 packages.
Turnaround averages 5.5 hours, and 94 percent of packages are picked up within 24 hours. Oversized packages or those not picked up in one day get moved to a shelving area within the center’s office. Just four years ago, the center processed all mail and packages by hand, with no computer software and no way to record deliveries.
“If we went back to the other way, we’d probably have a riot,” says McCarty.
Campus mailroom do’s and don’ts (cont.)
- DO branch out by offering fee-based services. Revenue boosters might include outgoing mail prep, address printing, digital copies or even passport services.
- DON’T overlook outsourcing opportunities. As mail services can be seen as outside of a higher ed institution’s core business, some colleges choose to outsource all or part of their mailing operations.
- DO plan major system overhauls for over the summer, if possible. One college made big changes over a single winter weekend because of an influx of complaints. Although it was a successful transition, administrators wouldn’t recommend modeling such a timeframe.
Office space (and other resources)
Vanderbilt overhauled its mail center, which has two locations on campus, a few years ago. Officials contract with the United States Postal Service to run a full-service post office, with the exception of money orders and passports. “Our post office handles more mail on a yearly basis than most small-town post offices,” says Anglea.
The facility has a total of about 6,000 square feet, and staff work with five zip codes (three unique to Vanderbilt, two shared with the city of Nashville). Eliminating 7,000 physical mailboxes saved 4,000 square feet and provided space for 500 intelligent parcel lockers.
Also known as smart lockers, these secure devices can be opened only by the student, who gets an email notification with an access code and instructions about where to retrieve the package. Students are also assigned a digitally accessible virtual mailbox.
“Virtual mailboxes allowed us to have a smaller footprint; we gained square footage to put intelligent parcel lockers in the lobby and gained room in the back for storage,” Anglea says. Students now retrieve packages at one of seven windows, or at four banks of intelligent lockers, enabling 11 people to retrieve packages at one time.
In addition, a sophisticated system does everything from tracking to managing mailbox assignments and mail forwarding. The system also manages a tracking app on the mailroom’s website. Prior to the renovation, Anglea was on the brink of having to hire new employees.
Now the same staff of 16 full-time employees and eight student workers can get the job done. Future plans include a mobile app for package retrieval and multiple package distribution for a single intelligent parcel locker, says Anglea.
Good things come in small (and large) packages
Revenue opportunities arise when campus mail employees can do their jobs more efficiently and students pick up mail promptly. Haverford, for example, has gone beyond typical mailroom services, offering a digital copy center.
At East Tennessee State, overhauling the mail center with the smart locker system saved staff an average of 2.5 hours per day, offering leeway to expand into other fee-based services, such as address printing, outgoing mail preparation, and a public passport business (which McCarty says is skyrocketing—but adds that only public institutions can offer passports).
The additional passport and photo services yield about $4,200 a month, just a bit less than the mail center makes on bulk mail prep and processing monthly.
When McCarty speaks at conferences about mailrooms expanding into ancillary services, his message is loud and clear: Campus mailrooms should embrace being efficient by using technology, so that they can add more services and functions, becoming more vital on campus. Taking these actions helps ensure job security as well.
“If all we are doing is sorting and delivering mail, this is a very easy operation to outsource to a private company,” he says. “If you do it yourself, if you’ve added other functions, you make it hard for someone to come in and take over.”
Hilary Daninhirsch is a Pittsburgh-based writer.