Two years ago, around this time of year, my sister phoned me with an advance warning that she wouldn’t be sending Christmas cards. I paid attention—after all she is the Emily Post of manners and is always ahead of the curve. But I didn’t follow her example—I wasn’t ready. So for two more years, my bundle of Christmas cards hit the bottom of the mailbox with a hollow thump. Each thump was the sound of a dying industry.
We knew it was inevitable. Post boomer generations have been disparaging the practise for years, undoing a custom established since the mid 1800s.
Here are some of the reasons given
1. It takes time. It’s one more thing to do in our increasingly busy schedules. Younger people particularly are conscious of doing things quickly. Speed and immediacy are everything.
2. Cards cost too much. Card companies, in a response to reduced sales, have tried to increase their profit margins by putting up the price.
3. Postage costs are through the roof. In recent years the cost of postage has more than doubled. A stamp costing 12 cents in 1981 in the US, now costs 34 cents. Consumers have responded predictably by cutting down their mailing. In Canada, last year, postal workers delivered 1.4 billion fewer pieces of mail across the country than in 2006.
4. It’s hard on the environment. In recent years, people have found it less acceptable to buy and send hundreds of cards, which they know will end up in the nation’s land fills, despite recent recycling trends.
You could see the writing on the wall
As the desk top computer advanced into everyday use, it was inevitable that computer created greetings would follow. Consumers started to test the waters with these new alternatives:
1. They learned to make their own cards. Computer generated Christmas cards first made an appearance in 1984. What they lacked in attractiveness, they made up in audacity, suggesting that its senders were on the cutting edge of a brave new world.
2. They began to send e-cards. Online greeting card companies arrived in the 1990s. Subscription prices were nominal (still are), and the process easy to learn. You can generate a Christmas card list, and send cards out on masse at the click of a key.
3. They were introduced to Facebook greetings. The reminders on Facebook guarantee that you will never forget a birthday, or leave any ‘friends’ out of a Christmas greeting. It’s immediate and gratifying to keep in touch so easily.
4. Younger consumers discovered texting. Along with Instagram and Snapchat, this is the most immediate of greeting methods. Attaching a photo or video of yourself and your family around the Christmas tree gives it an even bigger impact.
It’s no wonder that the greeting card industry is on a downturn. In the five years through the end of 2016, revenues are expected to have declined at an annualized rate of 6 per cent to $401.7-million in the US, according to a July trend report by research company IBIS World.
The really telling statistic is the impact on employment. Hallmark, the largest card company in the world, for example, slashed its workforce from 22,000 FTEs to 10,500 FTEs worldwide from 2010 to 2015.
Projections out to 2021 show further revenue declines and fewer sales outlets for greeting cards. In a July, 2017 report, Global Industry Analysts projects that the greeting card global market will decline to US$20 billion by 2024.
So are cards a thing of the past?
Is traditional correspondence at Christmas pretty much a thing of the past? Can you put your Christmas card list away forever? Not so fast, people in the industry say—greeting cards are still here. The market has changed, but it is still thriving.
Quoted in a Dec. 6, 2014 article by Miles Brignall in the Guardian, Sharon Little, chief executive of the England branch of the Greeting Card Association said:
“People are buying slightly fewer cards but are spending more on the ones they are sending to family and close friends. Everyone predicted the end of the greetings card industry because of the fashion for digital. But it’s the one area of print communication that proved extremely resilient.”
According to the Greeting Card Association in the US, sales of greeting cards has actually held steady for the last several years. This means about 6.5 billion greeting cards are purchased in the United States every year. The annual retail sales of greeting cards is estimated to be between $7 to $8 billion in total.
And don’t worry about Hallmark, which has the largest share in the card industry—they are going into other things. Hallmark Cards Inc., together with its subsidiaries, offers albums, hats, scarves, and T-shirts, interactive books, personalized, and recordable story books, and a plethora of seasonal décor products.
So the industry is not yet dead and gone. But its sunnier-than-ever prospects don’t answer my question: Do we join the trend to dump the Christmas card tradition, or do we hang in there, and continue to send them?
There are compelling reasons to stop. Most of all, it would be a relief to cross this chore off our lists. But like me, you may not be completely finished with it. After all, what is more gratifying, as the Christmas season approaches, than choosing exactly the right card for someone we care about, anticipating their enjoyment of a funny line, or their appreciation of a sentimental thought?
And ultimately, what are Christmas cards all about? My guess is they’re about being loved and remembered—knowing someone important to us has thought enough of us to send a greeting.
But isn’t that accomplished just as well with an e-card or a Facebook message? Hmmm, maybe it’s time for me to join the 21st century.