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Social media among threats to greeting card makers

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Sunday, October 7, 2012 - 5:36 pm

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Say it's your birthday or you've just had a baby, maybe got engaged or bought your first house. If you're like many Americans, your friends are texting their congratulations, sending you an e-card or clicking "Like" on your Facebook wall.

But how many will send a paper greeting card?

"I'm really, really bad at it," said Melissa Uhl. The 25-year-old nanny from Kansas City, Mo., hears from friends largely through Facebook. "Maybe," she said, "an e-card from my mom."

Once a staple of birthdays and holidays, paper greeting cards are fewer and farther between — now seen as something special, instead of something that's required. The cultural shift is a worrisome challenge for the nation's top card maker, Hallmark Cards Inc., which last week announced it will close a Kansas plant that made one-third of its greeting cards. In consolidating its Kansas operations, Kansas City-based Hallmark plans to shed 300 jobs.

Pete Burney, Hallmark's senior vice president who overseas production, says "competition in our industry is indeed formidable" and that "consumers do have more ways to connect digitally and online and through social media."

Over the past decade, the number of greeting cards sold in the U.S. has dropped from 6 billion to 5 billion annually, by Hallmark's estimates. The Greeting Card Association, an industry trade group based in White Plains, N.Y., puts the overall-sold figure at 7 billion.

Brian Sword, 34, of Kansas City, said he's "definitely" buying and receiving fewer printed cards than he did a decade ago, though he still prefers to send them to — and receive them from — a small group of close friends and family.

"I do think there are a lot of benefits and it does say more when it comes in a paper card format than when it comes even as an online greeting card," Sword said. "There's just something about receiving that card in the mail and opening it up and having it be a physical card."

Even the paper cards people buy have changed. Many people now use online photo sites to upload images and write their own greetings. High-end paper stores are attracting customers who design their own cards, sometimes using graphics software once available only to professionals.

"What Hallmark started with met the needs of the consumers in that early 20th century period to mass produce these personal greeting cards with art and poems and the only way you could communicate was by mail essentially," said Pam Danziger, who analyzes the industry as president of Stevens, Pa.-based Unity Marketing. "It's no surprise that in the 21st century with so many other communication vehicles available that the old idea of a greeting card being sent by mail just doesn't work anymore."

According to a U.S. Postal Service study, correspondence such as greeting cards fell 24 percent between 2002 and 2010. Invitations alone dropped nearly 25 percent just between 2008 and 2010. The survey attributed the decline to "changing demographics and new technologies," adding that younger households "both send and receive fewer pieces of correspondence mail because they tend to be early adaptors of new and faster communication media."

While Hallmark says it's committed to the paper greeting card, it has made changes over the years. It has an iPhone app, for example, that lets people buy and mail cards from their phones. It also partnered with online card service Shutterfly to share designs that consumers can use to build specialized cards online.

Its chief rival, Cleveland, Ohio-based American Greetings, actually went from trimming costs and jobs amid the recession to announcing in August that it's adding 125 workers to an Osceola, Ark., plant. It's part of an expansion that will allow customers to design their own cards — online, of course.

Judith Martin, author of the syndicated Miss Manners column, says she thinks the move away from mass-produced sentiment isn't all bad.

"The most formal situations still require something written," she said. "The least formal are easily taken care of with texting or email, which is terrific. The idea that it has to be all one or all the other and that one method is totally out of date and the other one takes over until the next thing comes along just impoverishes the ways that we can use these different things."

Amanda Holmboe, a 25-year-old power plant quality control worker from Portland, Ore., has mixed feelings about the rise of digital communications. She said her friends email, text or post something on Facebook when something big happens in her life.

"More people know about my life and what's going on. I hear from more people, so in some ways I'm connected to more people, but it's a less personal connection," she said.

But Holmboe isn't giving up on cards.

"I love sending cards," she said, adding that she mails some from the cities where she travels for work. "I think they're fun, and I like being able to write a personal note to somebody because I like getting mail, so I guess I just think everyone likes getting mail."