E-mail, g-mail, paper greeting cards aren’t going away

A customer picks a card at Pulp Papery in east Sacramento. Co-owner Manpreet Bains says the recession has hurt but there will always be a market for paper cards.

A few days before Valentine’s Day, shoppers jostled shoulder to shoulder before overflowing racks of greeting cards with touches of red at Target on Broadway in Sacramento.

“Why not get a good card?” said Dan Hood, a retired architect who isn’t crazy about e-cards.

Nearly 200 million Valentine’s cards are expected to exchange hands today – the second biggest greeting card day after the December holiday season.

Even though that’s enough for almost every adult in the country to receive a card, it’s a slowly diminishing convention.

People who select a paper card from a merchant and deliver it to someone are shrinking in number and spending, according to every economic indicator.

Revenue generated by the card industry will shrink at an average of 2.5 percent annually over the next five years, hammered by competition from free or less expensive e-cards, rising postal rates and growing options for do-it-yourselfers, according to industry watchers.

“The decline is well entrenched,” said George Van Horn, a senior analyst with Los Angeles-based research company IBISWorld Inc.

The number of gift and card shops dropped from 95,000 in 2006 to 83,390 in 2009, according to IBISWorld.

The number of adults participating in Valentine’s Day who buy cards has dropped from 63 percent in 2007 to 55 percent today, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation.

Some of the drop-off could be because of the economy, said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for National Retail Federation.

“That extra four or five bucks could go toward a gift or the dinner,” she said.

But the opposite could also happen in a recession: “Maybe people will only be getting a greeting card,” she said.

Shifting social dynamics are also changing the industry: Even when people are separated by a continent, they are in easy, constant touch through e-mail, social media and cell phones. Maybe a “happy birthday” or “congratulations” on Facebook will do?

In spite of the slow erosion, paper greeting cards will not go the way of eight-track cassettes, say those in an industry with ancient roots.

“I don’t think that the nostalgia of giving a greeting card will ever die,” Grannis said.

Online sales of all retail products represent only 7 percent of total sales, which could indicate that online card-giving will always lag behind paper cards purchased at a brick-and-mortar retailer, she said.

As we push into a digital age, the tactile distinction of a paper card can’t be matched, said Barbara Miller, a spokeswoman for the Greeting Card Association.

“Almost everyone has a shoe box under their bed,” she said. People hold on to cards like first Mother’s Day cards, graduation cards, baby cards, she said.

Hood, who was looking for a Valentine’s card for his mother, said he collects cards in just such a shoe box, along with other memorabilia.

He appreciates the thought, no matter whether it’s by e-card or any other form, he said, but he treasures the ones that make him laugh or cry and he believes those emotions are best evoked by a paper product.

He expects to be among the 200 million getting a Valentine’s card today. “I’m sure my wife will give me one,” he said. “It’ll be a paper card.”

In east Sacramento, cards with a delicate, handmade look line the racks of the Pulp Papery, which also specializes in custom wedding invitations.

“They don’t even teach penmanship in school,” co-owner Manpreet Bains said, lamenting the demise of paper-related flourishes.

Though buying is down somewhat because of the economy, she believes there will always be customers who want to send a paper card.

“Maybe I’m Pollyanna-ish, but I do think so even in this hardened day of e-mails and texting,” she said.

At Knott’s Leader Pharmacy in east Sacramento, Steve Dokimos, owner and pharmacist, said he experienced a drop-off in boxes of Christmas cards this past season, but other cards sell as they always have.

“I’m in a decent location so I’m doing well,” he said.

Drugstores used to devote a lot of space to greeting cards, he said, but that’s changed.

He draws a diverse clientele from his neighborhood, which could be why cards are still doing well, he said.

Like other publishing businesses, the greeting card industry is also shifting for survival, for relevance, Van Horn said.

By creating online card-sending options, incorporating digital gadgetry in cards, offering personal touches like e-cards with voice recordings or your own photos, traditional card companies are attempting to draw customers, he said.

“They have diversified,” Van Horn said of the estimated 3,000 greeting-card publishers. “They have embraced new technology and have kept up in the digital world, which is a struggle for all media companies.”

Greeting cards, a tradition dating to ancient Chinese heralding the New Year and Egyptians who scrolled good wishes on papyrus, is an estimated $7.5 billion industry, according to the Greeting Card Association.

It’s proving a flexible one, said Miller, the spokeswoman for the association.

The two largest publishers, Hallmark and American Greetings, which combined make up 30 percent of the total U.S. market, are also the biggest e-card publishers, she said.

“People are changing the way they connect,” said Sarah Kolell, a spokeswoman for Hallmark, the iconic greeting card publisher.

Customers now are looking for more diverse means to convey sentiments and best wishes, she said.

Hallmark’s Web site combines technology and tradition by letting customers select a paper card online and have it stamped and sent.

After a decade of the e-card phenomena, its importance is debatable, Kolell said.

The Kansas City-based company, which has introduced greetings sent to mobile devices, estimates that for every 20 paper cards bought and sent, one e-card is sent.

“The greeting card will remain relevant,” she said. “When someone goes through a stack of mail and finds something that isn’t a credit card offer or something like that, people appreciate that and it warms their heart.”

200 million: Valentine’s cards expected to be received today – the second-biggest greeting card day after the December holiday season

Valentine’s Day cards are displayed at Pulp Papery. The tradition of sending greetings dates to ancient Egypt and China.