The Halloween decorations are still up, but Debe Caruana-Friedman has already mailed 200 Christmas cards. “I sent them out already because I heard the Post Office was going to be slow this year,” she said.
Caruana-Friedman, of Carmel, New York, said she has a list of about 50 friends and family to whom she sends cards, and this year she joined an online Christmas card-exchange group to expand her circle. “I don’t think a lot of people send cards anymore, and I like old-fashioned mail,” she said, although she did note that she spent “a good $50” on postage alone. “The stamps, too, are going up, that’s another thing,” she said.
For many, sending holiday cards is a time-honored tradition, but that tradition is being challenged this year by everything from more expensive supplies to slower postal delivery. Experts in consumer behavior, though, say that shoppers’ persistence — and willingness to spend more — is an encouraging sign against an uneven economic backdrop.
For many, sending holiday cards is a time-honored tradition, but it is being challenged this year by everything from more expensive supplies to slower postal delivery.
“Our research tells us that paper cards continue to break through,” Lindsey Roy, chief marketing officer at Hallmark, said via email. “A 2021 survey found that more than half of respondents believe cards are more meaningful than other forms of communication,” she said. (A representative for Hallmark said the company has not increased prices of its holiday cards.)
Nancy Boyna of Celina, Texas, said she was motivated to expand her holiday card list after a tough 2020. She estimates that she will send out more than 200 this year, with about 40 going to a local nursing home. “I think we can all use a little kindness in this world,” she said in a Facebook Messenger chat.
Boyna said most of the money she has spent on this year’s holiday cards was the $90 she spent on stamps. She said she was able to save money by buying simple, inexpensive cards in bulk on Amazon that she personalizes with inspirational quotes.
Cait Lamberton, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said people have an unconscious tendency to perceive activities or expenditures as cheap or expensive, and those perceptions tend to remain fixed even when the associated costs rise. When it comes to holiday cards, she said, “It’s still seen as something that’s fairly inexpensive.”
Matt Kleinschmit, CEO of Reach3 Insights, said people’s desire to reconnect after a holiday season marked by virtual visits and distanced gatherings also is factoring into the dynamic. “You have that demand that’s really an underlying desire by consumers to have that human interaction,” he said. “There’s this incredible pent-up demand, I think, that’s going to translate into the holiday card phenomenon.”
Kleinschmit said it wasn’t surprising that people are getting an early start on their plans for holiday greetings. “Given all the media coverage of the supply chain issues we’ve been seeing, consumers increasingly think ahead as it relates to holiday shopping,” he said.
“People are buying cards way in advance,” said Kate Murray, owner of Quick Brown Fox Letterpress. “I’ve never stocked as many cards as I have for holiday, and I’m constantly reprinting.”
Murray said she can barely keep up with demand for her holiday cards, but sourcing the components and raw materials is becoming more time-consuming as well as more expensive. “This summer, I was already having supply chain issues,” she said. “I had to go to several different vendors just to get enough stock.”
Murray, who moved her five-year-old business from Brooklyn to New York’s Hudson Valley, said she is committed to try and source the materials she needs locally, but it is becoming more challenging. She buys paper from two different suppliers, and had to find a new manufacturer for envelopes recently — and that vendor also is facing shortages, she said. “They’re having a hard time getting materials, they’re also having a hard time getting enough people,” she said.
According to a report by market research firm IBISWorld, the sale of greeting cards and related goods such as photo calendars and day planners in the U.S. is a $4.2 billion business, of which individual and boxed greeting cards comprise roughly three quarters. It is a fragmented business with the two biggest brands, American Greetings and Hallmark Cards combined making up about one quarter of the industry. Many manufacturers are small independently operated or mom-and-pop businesses like Murray’s.
The damper Covid-19 put on business and personal socializing in general was a blow to the card business, as the gift shops and bookstores that are a key sales channel for cards were forced to close during lockdowns, and production and distribution were disrupted.
In the early months of the pandemic, Hallmark temporarily closed four manufacturing facilities, including one in Kansas that produces greeting cards. The corporate parent of 254 stores under the American Greetings, Carlton Cards and Papyrus brands closed those stores last year after declaring bankruptcy. (The brands themselves, which are owned by American Greetings, did not shut down and are sold at other retailers.) IBISWorld found that revenue for the category dropped by nearly 4 percent between 2016 and this year.
But that secular decline masks a few bright spots, such as an increase in demand for more elaborate and expensive cards. A spokesperson for stationery startup Minted said via email that customers are displaying a greater tendency to splurge on holiday greetings this year. “Our customers are buying early and they are often opting for luxe upgrades such as foil-press and letterpress,” she said.
Industry experts say younger adults appear to be driving the migration towards cards with more bells and whistles.
“Some of those more intricate, complex, higher-end cards have proven popular among millennials, who almost use them as a gift,” said Nora Weiser, executive director of the Greeting Card Association. “The card itself is part of the experience.” A report published by the trade group found that millennials spend, on average, $6 per greeting card (a metric that includes holiday as well as non-holiday cards).
Lamberton said that people tend to be more willing to splurge when a purchase is associated with a tradition. “For many people, they’re part of a set of Christmas rituals they don’t want to let go of. When they’re interacting with rituals, they become pretty price insensitive,” she said.
“When you spend more on something for the sake of a ritual or gift, it’s a sign you care more,” she said. “When you want to make someone feel special, the investment in that communication is a very strong signal.”