NEW YORK (AP) – Although the price of a first-class postage stamp is going up a penny on May 12, small businesses will get a break for the first time on Express Mail and Priority Mail costs. That will help many companies, but business owners who do a lot of mailing and shipping say there are plenty of additional ways to cut expenses if you shop and ask around.
The U.S. Postal Service, making itself more competitive with commercial mailers and shippers, is taking some steps away from what it calls a “one price fits all’’ policy that had customers paying the same price for all pieces of mail in certain classes of service. For example, Express Mail has had one price whether a piece of mail was sent 10 miles or 1,000 miles.

Express Mail will be priced based on zones, allowing customers sending mail nearby to pay less. Customers can also get volume discounts or save money by purchasing Express Mail online or through corporate accounts. Meanwhile, customers who use Priority Mail can save an average of 3.5 percent if they use electronic postage or meet other requirements and there will be discounts on Parcel Select and Parcel Return Service.

Shipping and mailing costs have been going up lately along with the price of gasoline and diesel, so the Postal Service is clearly trying to win away some business from its commercial rivals. Shipping and mailing services are all feeling the pain of a slower economy, and they're hungry for business – and savvy company owners know how to turn a difficult situation to their advantage.

“Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate,” said Nancy Baughman, owner of eBiz Auctions, a Raleigh, N.C.-based online auction service. She said she’s been able to get a better rate from shipping companies by telling them what their competitors are willing to do for her.

“Don't be afraid to use one against the other,” she said. “We do it all the time.”

In fact, shipping services expect to negotiate with small businesses. You can sign a contract that will guarantee how much you'll spend – although these days, you should expect to be paying a fuel surcharge.

Melissa Ewing, co-founder of Undercover Vegetable Co., said she's been able to lower her shipping costs by negotiating with the postmaster in Traverse City, Mich. – not over price, but over services. And she found him very willing to work with her.

“They will pick up. … You don't have to get off your chair,” said Ewing, who lives in a rural area and said she saved time and gasoline by working with the postal service. Her company manufactures fruit and vegetable bars.

Owners say the best way to find the best deal on shipping and mailing comes down to research – often, by just asking other business owners how they keep their costs in line.

“Word of mouth is better than any advertisement,” said Judith Zausner, who runs Caring Crafts Inc., a Philadelphia-based marketer of craft supplies and yarn.

Zausner followed the advice of a friend and uses shipping software that lets her run her own mailing operation, including downloading postage. She chose this route because it helps her handle shipments efficiently.

There are also online services that can help you find the lowest price for a package you want to ship. But, again, if you're a volume shipper, you'll likely do better by negotiating with shipping and mailing companies.

Beyond which company or service you choose, there are many ways to cut down on shipping costs. Baughman said searching for the cheapest supplies can save a small business a lot of money.

She suggests looking not just online through search engines like Google, but on eBay, where small businesses sell to other companies. She said the big office chain stores might not be the cheapest sources for boxes and packing materials – a smaller, local purveyor might be willing to give you a better price.

And if you're sending documents, and they don't have to be originals like legal papers, then take advantage of e-mail to send them. If it's a huge file, and either your e-mail system or your recipient’s won't accept it, there are Web-based services that will upload your documents and then allow your clients or customers to access them.