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Evolution of the Netflix Envelope 238

Posted by Zonk
from the uhoh-used-the-e-word dept.
An anonymous reader wrote to mention an article over on CNN Money. They go into some detail on what seven years of tinkering has done for the simple red Netflix envelope. From the article: "Years of experimentation went into creating the perfect DVD envelope. In 1999, Netflix started out with a heavy cardboard mailer. With only 100,000 subscribers, costs weren't a concern yet. Then the company experimented with plastic envelopes, which proved not to be recyclable, and padding, which added too much to postage costs. Both top-loading and side-loading envelopes made an appearance."
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Evolution of the Netflix Envelope

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  • Careful! (Score:5, Funny)

    by 2.7182 (819680) on Friday April 21, 2006 @08:24PM (#15178623)
    They re use those things and don't forget what most people rent! I wouldn't seal them with a lick.
  • by Saeul (880805) on Friday April 21, 2006 @08:25PM (#15178625)
    Imagine shipping 1 billion DVDs for one cent cheaper.
  • by selfabuse (681350) on Friday April 21, 2006 @08:26PM (#15178626)
    Netflix somehow always knows when I've sent a movie back before it actually gets there. I always assumed the barcode was somehow related to that.
    • Doubt it, they're not psychic and I doubt the USPS scans it in for them (hey they might never know), the barcodes are more likely for when they do get it in, it's alot easier then having to type in numbers or names for returns and checkouts.
      • by radish (98371) on Friday April 21, 2006 @08:51PM (#15178720) Homepage
        Actually the USPS do offer a service where they scan return envelopes at your local Post Office. It's used by a number of companies including Netflix to speed up return times.
        • Then it must be on a case by case basis because my girlfriends dad is on a firstname basis with the netflix delivery guys in Madison, WI and they just pick up all of their envelopes in a big bin to go back to the processing facility. If you look at the time stamp on your account that they received it back you can can see when it was scanned, if it isn't from 6pm-4am the USPS probably didn't do it.
          • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 22, 2006 @03:38AM (#15179618)
            Close ... here's what the USPS actually does, and how that fits in with what the previous posters report.

            There are two possible barcodes on the mailer that are of interest to the USPS.

            The first, and most common, is the barcode immediately below the address area. This barcode is a routing code derived from the address, and is used only by USPS.

            The second, and optional (you pay USPS for it) barcode will appear immediately above the address area. This barcode is used to do 'package tracking' of a crude sort. It contains a code identifying the USPS customer (netflix, for example), as well as some arbitrary data supplied by netflix - probably including a customer id and 'movie id' of some sort. This barcode is scanned when the envelope arrives at the USPS, and the scanned data is transmitted to the USPS customer who printed the labels. The customer then knows that 'the check is in the mail'. The most common users of this are credit card companies and utilities (gas, electric, cable).

            Beyond the barcodes, there is another USPS mechanism at work, which your 'netflix delivery guys' allude to. That is, for a fee, the USPS will 'aggregate' mail for a customer in a largely internal way. For example, the USPS allows you to set up 'virtual' addresses almost anywhere. Any number of 'virtual' addresses can be linked to one or more 'real' addresses. So, in the netflix case, they might have one regional processing center, and several dozen 'return addresses' for the surrounding area. The USPS then internally aggregates the mail at each 'virtual' address, and delivers it to the linked 'real' address. This can both significantly reduce the amount of time that it takes USPS to process a piece of mail, but also reduces the number of actual processing centers that Netflix has to operate in order to maintain the desired level of service.

            And no, I don't and never have worked for Netflix .. but I do know their business area well.
    • I imagine they use the USPS Confirm [usps.com] service as does Gamefly, who won an award [popcultureshock.com] for developing the system along with the USPS
  • by flogic42 (948616) on Friday April 21, 2006 @08:26PM (#15178629) Homepage
    As a long-time netflix user I think the paper envelope they have now is damn near perfect. It's dirt cheap, but keeps the DVD safe. It's recycleable too. It takes 5 seconds to put the DVD in securely and be ready to mail it.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 21, 2006 @10:16PM (#15178987)
      As a long-time netflix user I think the paper envelope they have now is damn near perfect. It's dirt cheap, but keeps the DVD safe. It's recycleable too. It takes 5 seconds to put the DVD in securely and be ready to mail it.

      I don't think their so perfect. I work for the post office and have to handle the damn things. I'm not the guy that stuffs your mailbox, I run the sorting machines. (about 95% of your letters are sorted by machine). Problem is, the DVDs jam the machine because they don't flex (enough). They need to be run on a special machine used to sort magazines. I regularly see their ripped envelopes and occasionally broken DVDs from the letter sorters, where they are mixed in with normal letters and difficult to see and remove. The envelope is too flimsy, and the adhesive sticker to "seal" it is a bit of a problem. It sometimes sticks to the adjacent mailpiece. You are seeing the result of "engineering" something to just barely meet requirements, to save a penny or two.

      The Blockbuster mailer is great from my point of view. Envelope is sturdy, and fits and protects it's contents well. The NetFlix mailer has the floppy empty "tail" because it is rectangular rather than square. Difficult to handle to load into the machines. This deficiency requires more time to handle the NetFlix, so it costs more to process. But that's OK, 'cause you're paying for it by subsidizing it with your first class postage on other mail. You do realize you subsidize the discounted postage bulk mail pays with your full rate first class postage, right?
      • by BeoFebenna (916590) on Saturday April 22, 2006 @01:07AM (#15179386)
        YES! Yes, we realize that. We do. We really do. It's okay. We all totally realize it. And we're grateful. Did we say we're grateful? We are. Okay. Now. Just put down the rifle...
      • by Kadin2048 (468275) <[slashdot.kadin] [at] [xoxy.net]> on Saturday April 22, 2006 @01:28AM (#15179429) Homepage Journal
        You do realize you subsidize the discounted postage bulk mail pays with your full rate first class postage, right?

        Funny, I was always told the exact opposite. Namely, that the discounts given to presorted bulk mail were actually less than the labor saved by the Post Office as a result of the presorting, thus most "junk mail" and stuff shipped at the bulk rate is more profitable, on a piece-by-piece basis, than individual First Class letters. So that really it's all those catalogs and crap that are subsidizing the Post Office's ability to deliver your letter to Grandma for 39 cents.

        If what you're saying is true, and it's the other way around, then what I've basically been told my entire life about the Post Office is wrong.

        I just ran some quick Google searches and I'm not the only person under this impression:
        "Most people are unaware that bulk mailing is highly profitable for the U.S. Postal Service and it subsidizes first class mail." http://www.lawmall.com/abuse/abe-mail.html [lawmall.com]
        "Bulk mail thereby subsidizes low cost stamps for letter, magazine, and book mailing." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_mail#Legislati on [wikipedia.org]
        &c., etc.
      • by ComputerSlicer23 (516509) on Saturday April 22, 2006 @01:40AM (#15179450)
        But that's OK, 'cause you're paying for it by subsidizing it with your first class postage on other mail. You do realize you subsidize the discounted postage bulk mail pays with your full rate first class postage, right?
        That's silly... It's actually the other way around... Bulk mail is subsidizing first class mail, not the other way around bub. The bulk mailers get a lower rate because they come pre-sorted, and generally with bar codes on them or other machine readable notations to facilitate the delivery. They cover the costs of driving past everyone's door. The larger the number of pieces of mail, the more letters the delivery costs are amortized over. If bulk mailers stopped sending mail, there'd be a huge spike in the price of stamps. For those of us keeping score, that means they are good for us, not bad. Thanks, for playing...

        Kirby

        • poor economy (Score:3, Insightful)

          by GunFodder (208805)
          That sounds right, but I think bulk mail is still bad for us. I would rather spend a dollar apiece on the 2 or 3 letters I send out each year than spend time almost every day wading through junk mail.
  • Neat to see. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MBCook (132727) <foobarsoft@foobarsoft.com> on Friday April 21, 2006 @08:27PM (#15178632) Homepage
    I've been with Netflix for over two years now so I've seen a few of those.

    That said, I've always wondered why Netflix didn't use more square envelopes. Some of the earlier designs looked that way. I wonder if it has to do with sorting or some such.

    • Re:Neat to see. (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      If they were square you could get them all straightened out, but they could be in 8 possible orientations (consider a mailbag full of these). If they're rectangular, then when you get them straigtened out they can only be in 4 possible orientations.

    • Re:Neat to see. (Score:5, Informative)

      by cfulmer (3166) on Friday April 21, 2006 @08:49PM (#15178717) Homepage Journal
      This is an easy one: square envelopes cost more [usps.gov].
      • Surely it already falls under that 13c surcharge for containing a "very rigid item".
        • That depends... I've gotten some very flimsy ones in the past.
          Anything that comes from more than a couple counties away tends to have a 50/50 chance of being broken.
          Once I got the remains of an envalope, and one shard of dvd in one of those plastic USPS "We're sorry" bags. I returned the whole mess to netflix in a 8x12 manilla envalope with a netflix mailer taped to it.
          -nB
    • Re:Neat to see. (Score:5, Informative)

      by britneys 9th husband (741556) on Friday April 21, 2006 @08:50PM (#15178719) Homepage Journal
      The post office charges more for square envelopes.

      From http://postcalc.usps.gov/mailpiecedimensions.asp [usps.gov]

      First-Class Letter Nonmachinable Surcharge:

      First-Class envelopes weighing 1 ounce or less require an additional $0.13 nonmachinable surcharge if any one of the following apply:

              * It is a square letter
              * It contains very rigid items such as wood or metal
              * It has clasps, string, buttons, or similar closure devices
              * It has an address parallel to the shorter dimension of the letter
              * It contains items such as pens that cause the surface to be uneven
              * The length divided by height is less than 1.3 or more than 2.5 (calculate this below)
  • by JPriest (547211) on Friday April 21, 2006 @08:29PM (#15178642) Homepage
    I notice when I get the envelopes the bar code on the inside sleve is rarely visable in the envelope window. The instructions didn't seem to say anything about it, so Idon't really bother making sure it is there.

    Would I save them any time by ensuring it is visible? Can anyone from Netflix corp answer this?

    • It makes sense to me that the barcode on the label on the DVD sleeve should line-up with the slot in the envelope part of the DVD. Would be interesting to learn why they do this, and what advantage -- if any -- there would be to shipping them back barcode-visible. I try to mail the DVD back like this. I haven't noticed any difference in the shipping frequency.
    • I don't think it makes any difference. I always send them back with the barcode visible but the way you have to insert it is so unnatural that I doubt you are suppose to worry about it.

      To insert it with the barcode visible you have to put the disc in with the label facing away from you which is probably not the way you normally hold it since you need the label facing you to read the movie title. And if you insert from the left not only is the label facing away but you have to put the disc in upside down w
    • From my experience, it makes no difference. I used to line up the bar code when sending a disk back, but stopped bothering months ago. I've seen no change in the turn around time.

      I think that NetFlix uses that barcode only when printing the address on the envelope. The disk gets stuffed (by hand) into an envelope with no address on it, bar code lined up with the window. Then the envelope is run down the conveyor and the bar code is scanned through the window. Their computer determines who should get th
  • by AhtirTano (638534) on Friday April 21, 2006 @08:37PM (#15178671)
    I'm at a loss. The envolopes were clearly intelligently designed. But they appear to have evolved to match the current pressures of cost and safety applied by their environment.

    Only a pointless flame war can guide me through this conundrum. That's why I'm turning to you, O Wise Slashdotters.

  • by Jerf (17166) on Friday April 21, 2006 @08:42PM (#15178688) Journal
    For those of you who think that there hasn't been much technological progress since, say, 1980 (except perhaps computers which are special*), this is how it happens. Take this sort of incremental improvement by one company in one very small facet of our lives, and multiply it across any number of thousands of products, carefully trimmed and optimized and made more efficient. You only notice the things that the process isn't very good at; UI, for instance.

    (*: And computers only seem special for two reasons: One, most fields don't get to experience exponential growth for decades at a time, and two, you know more about them. There's a lot going on under the hood of any number of other products, too. Familiarity breeds contempt; so does ignorance.)
    • And for those of you "glass is half empty" kind of people like myself:

      Every year the government and big corps find ways to make things a little harder for you. Its not a conspiracy, just every entity on the planet trying to amass power and money at your expense.

  • My Postman (Score:5, Funny)

    by Ankou (261125) on Friday April 21, 2006 @08:45PM (#15178698)
    I love the innovation but personally my postman always seemed to find that ONE weakness in em. I was at an apartment complex with those little metal boxes. I swear the postman would fold them every time and I'd still get a envelope of broken pieces. Happened more times than I'd like to recall.
  • by dteichman2 (841599) on Friday April 21, 2006 @08:47PM (#15178707) Homepage
    It's a pain when you get your movie and you have to be careful to avoid damanging the return envelope while you open it.

    Plus, I can't send it back with a different movie because we only get one at a time.
  • ...letter origami! [letterfu.com]

    Did Netflix try origami? [ghh.com]
  • It seems to me that there are a few flaws yet - for example I have torn off the adhesive strip more than once along the wrong set of perforations. I am not sure why the outer flap has to be the full length of the envelope. Sometimes the little adhesive tab tears the envelope when I open the thing.

    • I usually stuff my 3 DVDs all in the same return envelope. They all JUST fit within, allowing maybe one crease on the sticky strip that folds over...

      That way, I get three chances to not mess up one envelope.
  • Question (Score:4, Interesting)

    by NVP_Radical_Dreamer (925080) on Friday April 21, 2006 @09:20PM (#15178819) Homepage
    I've noticed that the return address on the newer netflix envelopes now reads "Nearest Netflix Shipping Facility" and then has a PO box located in my very small rural town. It makes you wonder if they dont scan the barcodes in different locations and then once that nearby local has marked it as received your next disc is sent. There has to be something to the way they get movies to me so quickly when I live so far from a major city.
    • The "very small rural town" on mine is Worcester.

      "Worcester is a city in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the United States of America. A July 1, 2002, estimate put the population at 174,962."
    • Mine says the same (Nearest...), but the return address on the envelope was located in CA, rather than FL (where I am) for some reason (where it was shipped _from_?).

      Needless to say, I trashed that envelope and doubled up on one of the return envelopes that was addressed to Tampa, FL. Sending back to CA would put a serious dent in my TAT.
      • I always double up.
        Im my logic a single slightly heavy envalope is cheaper than two just over half as light ones.
        Also, it mitigates breakage by reinforcing the parcel better (that or I'll loose two at once).
        -nB
  • by frantzdb (22281) on Friday April 21, 2006 @09:37PM (#15178872) Homepage
    That's a fascinating look at innovation. But they still annoy me in several ways in that it's too easy to damage the return mailer while opening it. First, the perforations on the thin flap are too sturdy. Second, the circular sticker is a pain; unless I am careful I wind up ripping the thin layer with my address on it. If the circular sticker were thinner or perforated or had notches in it to act as stress risers then it would easily rip the way it should. Lastly there is, the flap with the adhesive strip on it to seal it. The line of perforations is often stronger than the fold on the other side of the adhesive strip. Several times I have had to tape a Netflix mailer closed because I accidently ripped off the adhesive strip. Simply cutting notches in the ends of the perforation would get it started ripping.

    The fact that there is an "OPEN ALONG EDGE" notice says to me they aren't done innovating. I should be able to open it naïvely the first and get at my disk without worrying about damaging the return envelope.
  • In 1999, Netflix started out with a heavy cardboard mailer. With only 100,000 subscribers, costs weren't a concern yet.

    I dunno, you'd think a business with a small number of customers would be cost-conscious. But then 100,000 isn't all that small I suppose.
  • by bzipitidoo (647217) <bzipitidoo@yahoo.com> on Friday April 21, 2006 @09:57PM (#15178937) Journal
    I tried Ubuntu's ShipIt service for a few free CDs. They came, but the cardboard holders had scratched the surface enough that the disks were no longer reliable. Of course I found this out 3/4 of the way thru an install in front of a bunch of people I was trying to impress with Linux.
    • If you get an error while installing (or booting the live CD), the problem may be bad/incompatible hardware. And Ubuntu seems to be too picky about that! Try other distros; my dad's PC won't run Ubuntu at all, but Kurumin and BeatrIX work just fine!
      • Interesting, didn't know Ubuntu was picky that way. But, I had no problem installing Ubuntu from an ISO image I downloaded and burned at the extra slow speed of 4x (in case I ran into an old CDROM drive), on those same computers that would choke on the official Ubuntu CDs at the step "installing the rest of the packages". I did think CDs could take scratches better than that, and that cardboard wouldn't scratch them. These all had thousands of small scratches in a wide area across the diameter of the CD
  • by mlantz7 (953704) on Friday April 21, 2006 @09:57PM (#15178939)
    While it is interesting to see how the envelope has changed over the years, I find it more interesting to see some new competitors in the marketplace who are really innovating...

    Imagine being able to go online and request any movie you want, and be watching it within the hour. (OK, other than using BitTorrent!). You just go down to the local Redbox kiosk and pick it up within the hour.

    This is on the way, and you can't beat the current prices ($1/day) for new releases. And, there is a website with Redbox codes [insideredbox.com] where you can get A LOT of free rentals, too.

    So, if you are in one of 10 major metros [mappoint.net] you can get this today.

    So, forget the red envelope, and get ready for the Redbox.

  • If they don't properly affix the sticker that seals the flap, the USPS sorting machines can mangle them pretty good.

    In fact, just today I received only the address flap in the mail. It must've been ripped off from the envelope (who knows what happened to the dvd), and those persistant bastards at the post office delivered just a red flap.

    I've also received a disk that had the flap partially torn off. It took two days longer than normal, and the USPS had placed it in a "Sorry we damaged your mail" e
  • Evolution? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 21, 2006 @10:17PM (#15178989)
    I dunno. Sounds more like intelligent design to me.
  • The next step in the evolution is the extinction of the Netflix Envelope ...

    Once Video-On-Demand (VoD) becomes more common and affordable, services that snail mail DVDs will seem quaint...

    Ron
  • What Pure Bullshit (Score:3, Informative)

    by evilviper (135110) on Friday April 21, 2006 @10:57PM (#15179093) Journal
    They make it seem like this was an advanced and complex problem.

    Every ounce of weight in the mailer added to postage costs

    Weight (within reason) shouldn't be an issue. You can send letters up to 1 ounce, for base USPS postage. Since a DVD only weighs half that, and they only send one at a time, they could have very heavy envelopes before it would cost them any extra money. I think it would be a good idea for them to send 2 at a time (and in an envelope 2/3rds as large) which would make this more of an issue, but that's another story.

    but if the mailer was too flimsy, DVDs broke in the mail.

    DVDs will occasionally break in the mail, no matter what. An envelope would have to be incredibly strong to even slightly reduce the incidents of damage. So, it's the DVD's own strength and flexibility that keeps them from breaking, which has NOTHING to do with the mailer. The envelope is just scratch-protection...
  • the summary already says it all. here's the direct link to the gallery: http://money.cnn.com/popups/2006/biz2/netflix/fram eset.exclude.html [cnn.com]
  • Engineering oddities (Score:2, Interesting)

    by nolife (233813)
    The referenced article is very interesting and I often wonder about the process that goes into such things or what seems to be a lack of process. One thing that has me wondering is the rack managment of some servers. You have companies like HP that in the past has made some great contributions to technology with a wide variety of electronics, test equipment, and computing with both hardware and software. All that being said, HP has some of the strangest contraptions for server wire management. A few yea

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