Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni: Gloomy tidings on the cards

Texts, emails and tweets mean the greeting card's days are numbered

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

I have long been fascinated by the idea that people really can make a living writing greeting cards.

In truth, not many earn a full-time wage that way. There are just over 200 greeting card writers employed across America, for example, though they do make as much as US$100,000 ($125,000) a year, churning out the estimated 7 billion-plus greeting cards sold annually across that nation. Many more, however, make about $80 per card as freelancers; submitting their quips, syrupy poems and heartstring-tugging mini-jeremiads to a vast array of small card producers as well as the world's two largest greeting card corporations, Hallmark and American Greetings.

How times have changed for the greeting card writer. Where once "Happy Birthday", "It's a Boy/Girl!" and "Thanks" made up the bulk of business, these days topics have necessarily diversified: "Good luck with your redundancy", "Happy Divorce!" and "Congratulations on your mini schnauzer's vasectomy" are probably all part of the modern repertoire.

But even as greeting cards diversify to cover every event from botched Botox to foreclosure, they are losing revenue: Wall Street analysts call the greeting card business a "melting ice cube" - its business is literally melting away as electronic forms of expression take over.

That said, those of us who eschew the newfangled "LUWAMH (()):-><" (Love you with all my heart, hug hug, puckering up to kiss) and would prefer something we can decipher without a text dictionary, still pour $1.87 billion a year into the coffers of American Greetings (owner of John Sands in New Zealand) and more than double that to Hallmark, internationally.

Revenue, however, has flatlined, and these major corporates are looking to websites and digital greeting offerings, ancillary products such as wrapping paper, stickers and ornaments and all sorts of other ephemera to try to boost sales.

And not for the first time. American Greetings, which began life in 1906 when Polish immigrant Jacob Sapirstein sold 50 penny postcards in his new hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, was built into a giant, publicly-listed (but family-controlled) business on the back of constant expansion into new and only tangentially-related areas.

For example, the company struck gold by creating two of the most popular kid's "properties" in recent history - Strawberry Shortcake, which made US$500 million on debut in 1981-82, and Care Bears, which earned the company US$2 billion between 1982 and 1987 (and, criminally, spawned three, horrible feature-length movies).

American Greetings has relaunched both these kids' brands and expanded into all sorts of other "social expression products" across continents, but the ice-cube keeps on melting, so the Weiss family has decided to take the company private to be able to face the future and make infrastructure investments without the inconvenience of consulting shareholders.

The New York Times has painted the ensuing deal as a win for shareholders. Now, it just remains to be seen whether American Greetings can reverse its flat fortunes and put the greeting card back at the forefront of modern life, breaking the vice-like grip of the text message, email or tweet on our every written interaction.

- NZ Herald

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Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

Read more by Dita De Boni

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