A business reply envelope is an envelope that allows the recipient, rather than the sender, to pay postage. The process of charging recipients for mail is known as business reply mail. Post offices offer this as a service to businesses that want their clients to be able to send things to them in the mail free of charge, and there are a number of ways in which these envelopes can be used. A license is required for this service and people can apply to the post office to receive one.
One common reason to use a reply envelope is as an enclosure in a mailing that will increase the chance of a response. Recipients might be reluctant to send back surveys, signup forms, and other materials if they have to pay the postage. Enclosing a business reply envelope increases the chances that a mailing will get a response as postage does not pose an obstacle. This practice is also used by some government agencies that want to ensure they get responses to certain types of mailings.
Business reply envelopes and business reply labels are also used by companies to provide a postage-paid method for sending back defective, unwanted, or damaged goods. Consumers can mail goods back in the envelope provided for repair, replacement, or a refund without needing to provide postage. In such cases, this kind of envelope is used as a customer service technique to make it easy to return things and increase customer satisfaction.
The post office only charges businesses for envelopes that are actually delivered. If a company sends out 10,000 business reply envelopes and gets 3,000 responses, for example, it will only pay postage on the 3,000. This makes the envelope relatively risk-free for the business, as it only pays postage in the event of a response from a customer.
Historically, some pranksters recommended replying to junk mail and other unsolicited mail by sticking heavy objects into business reply envelopes and mailing them back, sticking the business with the high postage bill. Both businesses and the post office have become savvy to this practice, and the post office can opt not to deliver business reply mail that is clearly being mailed abusively, such as a business reply envelope taped to a brick or piece of lumber. It is also possible for people to be face charges in court for engaging in such practices.