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Stamp-Buying Made Easier

TO buy stamps, a trip to the post office is increasingly unnecessary. And for good reason. The United States Postal Service can save a lot of time, money, and effort by farming out these transactions, which involve approximately 40 billion stamps annually - or enough stamps to circle the globe two dozen times. For the customer, of course, the benefit is added convenience. ``Our message to the public is that we understand that you don't want to stand in line to buy stamps,'' says Art Shealey, a postal service media relations representative.

Toward that end, stamps can be ordered by using a toll-free phone number (800-782-6724). These transactions carry a $3 credit-card-user fee and are limited to purchases of $12.50 or more.

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In addition, the postal service's Stamps on Consignment program, now five years old, continues to expand the number of nonpostal sales locations. About 3,400 different retailers sell stamps at 25,000 locations nationwide. ``The participants see this as an opportunity to entice customers into more frequent shopping and one-stop shopping, which we support,'' Mr. Shealy says.

Grocery-store checkout counters are a popular location for such consignment stamps, which are sometimes sold at a reduced price as a customer draw. The postal service, however, always gets full value from the initial sale.

To further widen the distribution network, the USPS is looking into making stamps available through automated bank teller machines in addition to the stamp vending machines that have been around since 1972.

Beginning in May, a test run will commence in Seattle using the automatic teller machines (ATMs) of the Seafirst Bank. An all-plastic, self-adhesive stamp (similar to the paper self-adhesives test-marketed last year; see main story) was designed so that a backing sheet with a dozen 25 stamps is the same size as a dollar bill.

In what amounts to an electromechanical consignment program, stamps are a ``menu'' choice for ATM cardholders. ``You can get cash and stamps in the same transaction,'' Shealey says. ``By every way discernible to the machinery, [the sheetlet] is a unit of currency.''

Recognizing that nonbiodegradable plastic stamps would raise environmental concerns, the postal service emphasizes the limited nature of this experiment. By hinting at the possibilities, however, postal officials hope to encourage the development of a suitable, biodegradable plastic.

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