There is nothing more mundane in the back-office environment than the mail room. But the necessary and nearly always expensive use of the mails, courier and overnight delivery services can be a central point for savings.

Take the busy import and export business. Although much reliance is placed on telephone, fax and Internet communications, conducting business also means using the mails to send important letters and packages, perhaps with sample materials to clients.

While using the mails remains a pillar of a good business plan, cutting costs in the mail room is possible without skimping on important mailings.

Controlling costs is the key. Knowing when to use the U.S. Postal Service, Federal Express or Airborne, for example, can save money. And, because each service tries to remain competitive, rates are likely to change frequently.

Now a company best known for its office mail-room scales is weighing in with a piece of software running on Windows 95-based computers that takes the drudgery out of finding the best rates for your company's needs.

This is the first time Pelouze Scale Co., a subsidiary of Health-o-Meter Inc. (you know, the doctor's scales), has entering the small office/home office environment. SOHO entrepreneurs are now realizing the need for mail-room equipment - not just scales, packing tape, bubble wrap or twine, but software for shipping as their businesses grow.

I recently tested a copy of software by Pelouze called ProRate and discovered that it is an efficient alternative to wading through pages of rate schedules. It is the only product on the market that selects among rates from five carriers, and it also provides the most efficient way to ship.

That job is made easier by using the software's rate database. Users can update it on disk or via the Internet ( So when new prices are set by the FedExs and UPSs of the world, ProRate will make them available to subscribers, usually before they are posted elsewhere.

That's because Pelouze negotiated with major U.S. and international carriers for lead time to update its software whenever rate changes are made, said a spokesperson for Pelouze.



Using the software is easy. The first step is to weigh the package. That function can be done with any good scale, but Pelouze is bundling ProRate with its new line of digital scales. My copy of the software came without the scale, which was made available in March.

ProRate version 1.0 of the software was released in January at a suggested retail price of $49.95. Bundled with the electronic scale, the retail price is about $150.

I was working with a beta release 1.03, intended to work best with the Pelouze digital scales. Without one, the user will have to key in the weight of the item manually.

The software was easy to configure. You can tell the software to use preprogrammed calculations to find the best price among the carriers for the package you're shipping, or you can override suggestions and go with the carrier of choice.

Subscriptions to the periodic rate updates cost $50 a year. Each ProRate software user is given a unique registration ID to gain access to the update portion of Pelouze's Web site.



Several months ago, I reported on a new futures market investment that will be traded on the Internet as well as through more conventional methods. The U.S. Treasury bill on the Chicago Board of Trade ( will be a first in online futures trading.

In the past few years, Internet trading of equities has attracted a loyal following. In the mid-1990s, the CBT took an early lead among major U.S. exchanges in creating a Web site.

On March 24, the world's largest futures exchange launched a more user-friendly site on the World Wide Web to capture a share of the growing online retail market in financial instruments. The site boasts a plethora of new information on the CBT markets and the futures industry.

The ''MarketPlex'' section, a commercial service designed to offer global investors one-stop shopping for market and business information, was also renovated. The exchange hopes to expand its outreach and attract individual investors who are some of the heaviest users of the Internet.


Use of the CBT Web site has swelled to 600,000 hits a day. ''The improved Web site enables us to raise that level of service and to explore new avenues in market development and electronic commerce,'' exchange officials say.

Visitors to the newly designed site will be able to access information on all facets of the exchange, including product literature, market data and CBT historical material.

New features and capabilities on the Web site will also include online seminars; interactive publications; live ''chat'' events with industry experts and VIPs; community ''message boards'' that will include public discussion of markets and related events; simulated trading of CBT contracts; trading strategies for CBT products; snapshot quotes of cash government securities markets; free 10-minute delayed quotes on all CBT products; and daily and weekly charts on all CBT products.

One of several accolades the exchange has received came from Lycos (, a leading search engine. Lycos named CBT's a ''Top 5 percent'' site for its design.