Monday, March 11, 2013

Hallmark's Future In the Cards?

When was the last time you bought a greeting card?

"Greeting card," you ask?

"You mean, like, a birthday card, or a Christmas card, or a Valentines card?  Made out of paper?"

Too anachronistic for you?

Some say the great American greeting card is fading away.  Yet another casualty of our digital age, and the preference people have of sending online cards - or not sending cards of any kind at all.  Just within the past five years, approximately 700 Hallmark stores have closed in North America.

Just a month or so ago, my local Hallmark store closed, the last of two once-thriving greeting card stores that used to be in the same shopping center.  Even our large mall, one of the most heavily-trafficked in Texas, lost its last card store - a Hallmark - a couple of years ago.

"Blame it on the Internet," many lament.

Yet if you poke around the Internet, you'll find anecdotal evidence that it's not so much technology that's to blame, but that technology likely shares the blame with Hallmark itself.  Even when I was in college back in the Dark Ages, a friend of mine who worked part-time at a friend's Hallmark store told me of the struggles the owners had complying with Hallmark's strict franchise rules and paying their high fees.  To read accounts by people online these days who claim to have been former franchisees of Hallmark's, things only got worse over the years.  While some card stores have been able to diversify their merchandise, branching out into candles, Christmas ornaments, and - frankly - a bunch of junk I couldn't imagine anybody wanting to buy, they've all become rather dumpy and sparse, perhaps spending less on cleaning and repainting and more on licensing fees.

It's not like the greeting card itself has become obsolete.  Walk into any chain drugstore these days, and you're greeted with aisles of nicely-sorted and well-designed greeting cards spanning a broad subject range.  Here in Texas, whether it's a Walgreen's or CVS, they'll have cards not only in English, but almost as many in Spanish.  Sure, since drug stores aren't "Gold Crown" stores, you don't get the little round sticker that a franchisee will give you with your purchase, but comparing the card selection at our last nearby Hallmark store, and the selection at any of our numerous chain drug stores, I usually didn't notice much of a difference.

And what about Target stores?  They not only carry greeting cards - albeit by different brands other than Hallmark - their selection appears to be growing.  I imagine a similar phenomenon is happening at Walmart, but since I don't shop there, I don't know for sure.

Suffice it to say that greeting cards don't appear to be going the way of newspapers, land lines, and foldable maps just yet.  It's likely more a factor of Hallmark's increasingly irrelevant business model relative to the convenience factor most shoppers now prize.  Purchasing greeting cards along with aspirin, toothpaste, and toilet bowl cleaner doesn't invalidate the role greeting cards play in our lives.  But the logic of one-stop-shopping does invalidate the role Hallmark would like for its stores to play in our schedules.

Although that doesn't really explain why our local mega-mall doesn't have a card store of any kind - Hallmark or otherwise.  You'd think a mall would still be a logical place for a card store.  But not ours.  Perhaps that's a genuine result of our society's new generation of consumers who are too young and too self-centered - according to Hallmark's traditionalists - to purchase something sentimental to give to somebody else.  I walked our local mall this Christmas season when my brother and his family were in town, and it's almost entirely stocked with clothing stores for teenagers - who, obviously, must be the core mall customer nowadays. 

Will today's teens mature into adults who have no use for greeting cards?  Maybe.  But then again, I see as many teens as anybody else flipping through the card selection at Target when I'm doing the same thing.  For people who we're told don't want to make big commitments to relationships, a greeting card can actually be an easy way to say something without actually meaning it.  Hallmark franchisees have complained about their product being "cheapened" by being sold in drug stores, but it's up to card companies to keep their products in front of potential customers like teenagers, which is likely why Hallmark and its competitors have diversified into general merchandise retailers.

While we're on the subject of greeting cards, however, how many Christmas cards did you receive this past Christmas?  We can't blame the death of the Christmas card on today's teenagers, can we?  They may not grow up to send massive amounts of Christmas cards like my parent's generation did, but then again, how many of us adults still do?  I used to send out Christmas cards, but I can't remember when I stopped, it was so long ago.  This past Christmas, I think I received two of them (that weren't actually advertisements from politicians or places with which I do business).

Then again, however, I have a couple of friends whose families mail out Easter cards, since Resurrection Sunday is a more genuinely religious holiday than Christmas anyway.  Although I think one of the families has gone to an online edition of their Easter card.

Oh well.

Does all this spell trouble for the integrity of our interpersonal relationships, as prognosticators of the greeting card industry's decline claim?  Does the demise of the stand-alone Hallmark store mean that we're losing a sense of our humanity?  Even if technology isn't directly to blame for so many Hallmark stores closing recently, are we destined to a future of digitized emotions?

Well, considering how most of the holidays we used to buy greeting cards to celebrate were invented by manufacturers of greeting cards, maybe we're just settling back into a more authentic sense of community and communication.

Even if Hallmark doesn't feel the love.
_____

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