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The 'Amazon Effect' on the University Mailroom

Thanks to the popularity of services like Amazon Prime and Google Express, colleges and universities are seeing more package deliveries than ever before. Here's how technology is helping mailrooms cope.

In years past, college students would arrive on campus in cars packed with their personal belongings. Some would bring so much they'd need a U-Haul.

Times have changed.

Today's students are showing up with fewer belongings, knowing they can purchase everything they need online and have it delivered. As students buy everything from dorm furniture to textbooks to groceries online, college mailrooms are feeling the burden of handling more packages than ever. "We have seen a 10 to 12 percent growth year after year for the past 10 years," said Mark Ironside, executive director of university business services at Lehigh University.

CT talked with officials at Lehigh, the University of Southern California and Haverford College to find out how they have deployed technology to deal with the meteoric rise in package handling.

New Opportunities at Lehigh

In 2012, Lehigh University implemented a mailroom solution developed by Ricoh. The system is integrated with the school's internal data systems, allowing mailroom personnel access to student information.

That means the system can notify students when packages are delivered. "Now students don't need to make an unnecessary trip to check their mail or to check for packages," explained Ironside. "They're notified when packages and mail are in their mailbox and they come pick them up at their leisure."

Each quarter, Ironside meets with Ricoh to review the various financial and volume metrics collected by the system, thus providing him with a complete picture of the mailroom operation. "This helps us guide future decision-making. We know, for example, our service times are only one minute," said Ironside.

Aside from providing a more efficient way of notifying students, the Ricoh system has also offered a monetary benefit. Since installing the Ricoh system, the mailroom is experiencing more foot traffic than ever — which has opened up significant retail opportunities. In hindsight, Ironside feels he should have taken advantage of this traffic earlier. "I think we would have engaged a retail consultant earlier on in the process to help us think through the potential of product and promotion mix," he said.

Streamlining Operations at USC

To improve package handling in the USC mailroom, Leo Boese, associate director of safety and security for USC Housing, implemented Notifii's package management system. Originally created for commercial parcel centers like the UPS store, Notifii moved into the higher education space when schools began clamoring for mailroom tech solutions. Currently 80 schools and more than 800 student housing apartment complexes use Notifii.

Notifii is cloud-based and works across multiple platforms, such as tablet, phone and desktop. When a parcel arrives at USC, mailroom personnel scan it into the Notifii system, which instantly sends an e-mail and a text to the recipient's phone indicating he or she has a package.

Notifii's package tag feature allows mailroom personnel to print a label with the recipient's information. These labels allow staff to easily spot those packages that have already been logged in, saving time.

USC housing personnel installed the Notifii software and the necessary hardware, like label printers and scanners, without enlisting IT. Boese said Notifii works exactly as advertised. "Their system was extremely easy for our student workers and staff to learn. It's very efficient and students love it. FedEx, UPS and our logistic center delivery personnel love it, too," he said. Notifii has reduced the amount of space needed to store packages by more than 85 percent.

Mailrooms that implement Notifii's tablet or smartphone version don't need to purchase or use a barcode scanner or signature pad. "We utilize the camera feature that's on the tablet [or phone] as a barcode scanner. Because the tablet is touchscreen, the student can just use their finger and write on the tablet," noted Ahn Tran, cofounder of Notifii.

Improving Service at Haverford

When Haverford College started receiving parent and student complaints about its package delivery system, it knew it was time to find a more efficient way to manage the 400-plus packages it receives each day.

Haverford's biggest issue, according to Geoff Labe, director of conferences, events and campus center services: receiving the packages, logging them in and getting the notifications out to students. "We recorded every package in our system. Each day, the system would print between 200 to 400 student pick-up notification pages. On each of those pages were four package slips that needed to be cut and inserted into student mailboxes. It was an extremely time consuming and inefficient process," Labe said. 

To streamline its process, Haverford implemented Pitney Bowes' SendSuite Tracking software, which has automated package handling for Haverford while providing full accountability for parcels. Barcode readers, electronic signature capture and tracking and reporting functions help Haverford manage inbound parcels by recording date, time, carrier, sender and intended recipient.

"Now, we use the handheld devices to log all packages. The system automatically generates an e-mail to our students and staff. If they have a package, they know in less than an hour after it arrives on campus. Obviously, our students and staff are much happier," said Labe.

Saving Space

If student online shopping continues on its current trajectory — and there's no reason to believe it won't — college mailrooms will run out of physical space. Some may even need to rent storage from third parties. In the near future, the parcel locker will play a vital role in freeing up mailroom space and in the distribution of packages. Mailroom personnel will deliver packages to automated trays or lockers, while software will send a text or e-mail to students announcing the arrival and location of each package. This year, for example, Amazon built a facility with 150 lockers on Purdue University's campus that will get packages to the school's 3,600 students. 

Thanks to the SendSuite Tracking software, Haverford now knows the exact location and status of inbound parcels — making it easier to locate misplaced or lost items. "The accountability, the communication and the customer service have all improved dramatically with SendSuite," Labe said. The software also has increased the efficiency of the mail center by improving productivity levels, eliminating manual parcel recording and reducing time spent searching for requested items and notifying recipients of the items received.

"We've gone from four days to two hours in our processing time," said Labe. "This is a real benefit. Our efficiency has increased dramatically, so staff spends more time getting packages out to the students and the departments rather than putting slips of paper into mailboxes."

To further streamline the process, Pitney Bowes worked with Haverford to link barcode information on packages with students' ID cards. Every student's ID card is now the primary key in the system, allowing staff to easily locate packages in the mail center by scanning the card. This eliminates the use of logbooks and spreadsheets — reducing the occurrences of human error through manual recording and providing precise accountability of items from sender to receiver.

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