By Bill McAllister, Washington Correspondent
For the revenue hungry United States Postal Service, they seemed like the perfect product.
Produced with virtually no added costs, press sheets of imperforate self-adhesive stamps were hot sellers from the moment the first sheets went on sale in July 2012 with the issuance of the Major League Baseball All-Stars stamps.
But barely four years later, sales of the sheets have become mired in controversy.
Some collectors are accusing the Postal Service of operating in secrecy, keeping the numbers of imperforate sheets — also called no-die-cut sheets — a closely guarded secret until the moment sheets have gone on sale at first-day ceremonies.
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Even then, the number of sheets being offered often isn’t known, the collectors say, until a clerk at a first-day ceremony announces all the sheets are sold.
Despite the sheets’ popularity, postal clerks often have only a few sheets at first-day events.
Advance telephone orders have been accepted, but then rejected well after a first-day event. This makes it impossible to use the new imperforate stamps on first-day covers, these collectors fume.
Some collectors are outraged that USPS Stamp Services has let one of its cash cows become bogged down. They blame bureaucratic incompetence, downright stupidity, or even perceived favoritism to selected customers.
“The past several months can only be described as bizarre,” said Jim Siekermann, a Cincinnati collector and co-author of A Guidebook and Checklist: U.S. Postal Service No-Die-Cut Stamps 2012-2015.
Despite their popularity and high profit margins, Siekermann told Linn’s that the USPS has “dramatically reduced” the number of sheets being produced this year, imposed pre-ordering times that varied from a few days to a month, and summarily canceled orders a week or more after they were accepted by the Stamp Fulfillment Services center in Kansas City, Mo.
At least one collector, who complained to Linn’s, urged postal inspectors to investigate. The inspectors declined, saying complaints should be directed to either USPS consumer affairs or to the USPS inspector general’s staff.
Postal spokesman Mark Saunders told Linn’s that the Postal Service’s top stamp managers are aware of the complaints and are determined to resolve them.
“To provide the best customer service, Stamp Services is in the process of re-evaluating our line of stamps and philatelic products,” he said in an e-mail response to Linn’s.
When asked why Stamp Services cut back on the number of sheets being sold, Saunders replied: “They are looking at past sales coupled with different forecasting methodologies to determine proper quantities of not only stamps, but other stamp products to be manufactured.”
Saunders did reject speculation that the USPS was providing dealers with inside information on the sheets.
“Everyone has the same opportunity to purchase stamps and philatelic products from the USPS at the same time,” Saunders said.
Interviews with collectors suggest the secrecy in which USPS has handled the sheet sales has fueled such fears.
“With increased sales and sell outs, the USPS chose to reduce quantities to as low as 250 [sheets] in 2016,” said Foster Miller, a first-day collector from Maryland. “They should have been increasing quantities.”
The decision of the editors of the Scott catalogs to assign separate catalog numbers to the imperforate stamps in 2015 helped fuel interest in the sheets, Miller said.
Imperforate stamps from uncut press sheets were listed for the first time in the 2016 Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers.
Jill Ambrose, a collector from Cincinnati and co-author with Siekermann of the guidebook on the no-die-cut stamps, said production of the uncut sheets should be a no-brainer for Postal Service officials.
“First of all it seems to be a wonderful money-making project for the Postal Service,” she said in an e-mail to Saunders, which she shared with Linn’s.
With prices as high as $688.50 for a single sheet of 30 Express Mail Stamps, the profit potential from selling whole sheets of imperforate stamps seems like an opportunity postal officials would be eager to duplicate.
But like many collectors, Ambrose said she was puzzled why uncut sheet production has dropped this year.
For the $22.95 Columbia River Gorge Express Mail stamp, the USPS offered only 250 uncut sheets (30 stamps each), she noted.
The $19.99 USS Arizona Memorial Express Mail stamp, issued in 2014, had 500 uncut sheets, and those “sold out quickly,” she said.
“Seems to me like someone dropped the ball and threw away the profit of 250 sheets times (30 stamps x $22.95) or $172,125.00,” Ambrose said in her letter to Saunders.
She and several first-day collectors said that getting the imperforate press sheets quickly is important. That’s because they want to place the uncut stamps on covers and get them canceled within the time limits set by Stamp Fulfillment Services.
Miller said clerks often have only a few of the uncut sheets for sale at first-day ceremonies, and they are often sold quickly.
At the Botanical Art stamps release in Atlanta Jan. 29, clerks had five sheets and all were sold before the show opened, he said.
At the 2015 first-day ceremony for the Appomattox Civil War stamps, clerks had 10, all bought by one person, Miller said.
The same person bought all the 15 sheets at the Gifts of Friendship stamp in Washington and the five at the recent Richard Allen ceremony in Philadelphia, he said.
What worries Miller and other collectors is a fear that speculators are purchasing what stamps are available and quickly selling them at higher prices.
Those prices are running at eight or more times face value, according to Siekermann. Previously the aftermarket values were running “two or more times face” for recent issues, he said.
“The sweet spot in my opinion is the issuance of between 1,000 and 1,500 press sheets,” he said.
“This makes them available to most at reasonable prices and provides the USPS with solid revenue as the retention rate on these stamps is well north of 90 percent.”
Even the problems of ordering the sheets in advance is difficult, citing the Global Forever Moon stamp, Ambrose said.
“I spoke with at least 14 different [Stamp Fulfillment Services] clerks at the 1-800-782-6724 phone number, plus two people in customer services,” she said.
“And it was amazing how ill-informed these people were about the status of the Global Forever stamps.”
“We think a production error occurred with the Global Moon stamp, where the planned 500 to 700 no die cut sheets were die [cut],” said Siekermann.
“Why else would there be 1,000 die cut sheets when they were reducing those to the 250 level as well?”
“If USPS can just communicate better as to what is available and when and return to a steady method of order, I think collector displeasure and angst will disappear and we can get on with collecting this fun new area,” he said.