‘Package Deal’ Makes Student Life Easier at Vanderbilt University
As Mickey Anglea knows, the packages shipped to college students can hold anything from prom dresses and edible arrangements to “crazy things” like automobile tires, generators and entire sets of dorm room furniture. He’s seen it all.
It wasn’t the variety of the package traffic coming into Vanderbilt University that was the problem, however, says Anglea, who as associate director of Business Services is in charge of the Nashville, Tenn., institution’s Mail Services unit. The ever-rising volume of the packages and the logistical logjams of getting them into students’ hands were the obstacles that needed to be overcome — and have been, thanks to an ingenious remodeling of Vanderbilt’s entire package handling operation.
Parallel to this was an overhaul of the way students could retrieve their letter mail. In these projects and others, Mail Services has cooperated closely with Vanderbilt’s Printing Services, both part of the school’s Business Services Operations Division (which also includes an outsourced bookstore and management of the MFD fleet).
Anglea and Sean P. Carroll, director of Business Operations, agree that coordinated effort makes sense because it promotes student well-being, saves the university money and is the best way for campus service organizations to function.
“In academia, we try to help each other,” Anglea says.
“We’re all the stronger for it,” Carroll concurs.
In this collegial spirit, Mail Services and Printing Services together see to all the postal- and shipping-related needs of Vanderbilt’s 21,700-strong population of students, faculty and staff.
Divisions of Labor
Anglea’s group manages two on-campus USPS Contract Postal Units (CPUs), handles receipt and pickup of student packages and mail, distributes departmental and interoffice mail and administers postal metering. Besides producing most of Vanderbilt’s high-volume printed matter, Printing Services is responsible for outgoing bulk mail, mailing list processing and maintenance, and the management of a number of the school’s postal permit accounts.
Trends in mail and package traffic at Vanderbilt are the same as everywhere else: letter quantities are down, but packages are streaming onto campus at a rate never before experienced. According to Carroll, annual incoming package volume doubled from 104,000 to 207,000 between the University’s 2010 and 2018 fiscal years. This, says Anglea, is largely due to Amazon and other online retailers taking over as the purveyors of nearly everything today’s college students purchase.
“They make it so easy,” he observes.
The result is that, on an average day, 900 packages could be waiting for their recipients to come and collect them. In busy start-of-semester months, this can spike to 3,500 — a backlog that eventually began to overstress the university’s package-handling facilities. Long lines at the parcel windows indicated that the time had come for an updated approach both to package logistics and to the distribution of incoming letter mail, which was anchored to a cluster of 7,000 traditional postboxes.
Things changed in the late spring and early summer of 2015 with the addition of four new parcel windows, for a total of seven. The real innovation, however, was the installation of a system designed to keep students from having to queue up at the windows in the first place.
Automated Package Lockers
The system comprises four kiosks, each of which controls a bank of 125 automated lockers — the preferred pickup points for incoming package delivery. Mail Services staff scan shippers’ bar codes on the packages to assign each received item to a locker for 24 hours. Lockers come in three sizes: small, medium and large. Notified by e-mail, students can enter a six-digit code or use their Vanderbilt ID cards to open the lockers and claim the contents, even at night. The lockers then are reserved for other deliveries, keeping the turnover of the 500 units continuous.
Students who don’t retrieve what’s theirs within the 24-hour period allotted to them have to go to the parcel windows to get it — a needless inconvenience, says Andrea, given that “it literally takes a student five seconds to get a package out of a locker.” He adds that the system’s smart automation is one reason why Mail Services hasn’t needed to add personnel or student help to cope with the rising tide of incoming packages.
The automated lockers don’t entirely eliminate the need for package pickup windows, though. About 30% of packages won’t fit in the lockers. And with 3,500 packages per day arriving in peak season, many students still have to visit one of the seven package pickup windows to claim their parcels.
Virtual Student Mailboxes
Adjacent to the kiosks in a location at the center of campus is one of Vanderbilt’s two CPUs, which Anglea describes as “much like a post office in your hometown” because of the familiar menu of mailing-related services they provide. In the central CPU, about 100 sq. ft. substitutes for the 3,500 sq. ft. once dedicated to the 7,000 traditional postboxes. Kept in the smaller space is something else altogether: an identical number of “virtual student mailboxes” that streamline the distribution of letter mail in the same way the kiosks and lockers do for packages.
The “mailboxes” are physical in nature, but with a difference. What makes them “virtual,” Carroll explains, is that students’ private mail box (PMB) numbers don’t correspond to actual mailboxes. This is because Mail Services has replaced all the mailboxes with a system of manila file folders that use unique barcodes matched to each student’s PMB.
Mail accumulating in the folders is scanned, and students receive messages alerting them that they have pieces to pick up. They can do this by presenting their Vanderbilt IDs at a Mail Services window, where staff retrieve the mail for them.
As a time- and space-saving alternative to postboxes, the system takes touches out of internal distribution and is much better suited to the diminished volume of letter mail that Vanderbilt receives now, Carroll says. It also generates revenue from the fees that direct-mail marketers can pay to have their promotional materials included in the folders.
Contributes to Campus Security
Convenience, efficiency and extra income aren’t the only benefits of centralizing these operations. Student safety and security are primary concerns on all college campuses, and from this point of view, Carroll notes, concentrating mail and package pickup in one place is preferable to having outside delivery personnel roaming the Vanderbilt grounds in search of addressees. (With only a few exceptions, no deliveries of any kind are permitted to the dorms.)
At Vanderbilt, security begins at the point of receipt. In a recent exercise with postal and law enforcement officials in Nashville, Mail Services successfully intercepted a test package masquerading as suspicious — an indication of the degree of control that Anglea and his team exert over everything coming to campus in shipping cartons and envelopes.
The material arrives in three non-presorted daily deliveries from the Post Office and in regular drop-offs by FedEx and other carriers. Twice a day, Mail Services’ route drivers sort pieces on the fly as they deliver departmental mail, distribute interoffice mail and pick up outgoing bundles and packages in need of metered postage.
Acting as the campus center for bulk mail processing, Printing Services meters the pieces with a pair of IS-6000 automated mailing systems from Neopost. Customers can specify domestic or international postage with online forms that have replaced a multi-part, much more expensive paper version. Bar coding matches postage imprints to requests and creates equally accurate records of who ordered what.
Carroll says the procedure reduces input errors, confirms that postage has been correctly billed and lets Printing Services spot ways to help customers lower their postage costs. (“Did you really want these 80 packages to go express?”)
Printing Services eliminated manual inserting and its complications more than two years ago when it installed a Mailstar 500 mail processing system from Bell + Howell. Using Quadient Bulk Mailer and NCOA address verification software ensures that the lists Printing Services receives from the university’s recruitment office, alumni associations and other campus organizations will produce USPS-compliant mailings.
Designing Mail-Ready Pieces
For all of its emphasis on mailing, Printing Services remains an in-plant with an in-plant’s primary responsibilities for print management. This includes helping campus graphic designers to keep their formats mailstream-ready.
“We’re absolutely consulted” on the creative side for the production of outbound materials, Carroll affirms.
The oversight applies to, among other projects, the design of the recruitment brochure the in-plant printed and mailed last year. When it recovered the production of an outsourced alumni magazine, Printing Services saved Vanderbilt a big chunk of money by switching the periodical’s postage from first class (the former printer’s default) to a much more economical not-for-profit rate. Carroll believes these are all natural roles for an academic in-plant.
“If you print, you have to mail,” he says. “It solidifies your role on campus as the expert.” The school population, he notes, looks upon dependable mail delivery as a core service, and everyone appreciates the convenience of accessing their letters and packages in one place.
‘Best Suited’ Is Better than ‘Perfect’
The benefits and advantages of Vanderbilt’s system speak for themselves, but Anglea is modest about the dimensions of the initiative’s success. He notes that representatives of 70 other schools have come to inspect the setup over the past three years, and that all of the visitors have asked whether it is the “perfect” one for what it does.
His response: “I say no, but it’s the one best suited to our environment and volume.”
Anglea’s first piece of advice for campus organizations wishing to launch or improve mail and packaging operations is that “it’s critical to get a lay of the land” by conferring with stakeholders and assessing their needs.
Then investigate how other schools have done it, and see what solutions the mail system providers have to offer. In getting mail and package handling to where they need to be, Anglea says, “leveraging technology is your friend.”
Carroll is equally pragmatic, insisting that in environments like Vanderbilt’s where incoming volume exceeds outgoing, most of the focus should be on optimizing internal processes and procedures.
“We aim to do it as well and as professionally as we can,” he says. “We’re not here to get rich or to upsell, we’re here to be efficient."