- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2000

Free on-line greeting cards are going out in record numbers this year, but that won’t mean a shortage of season’s greetings signed, sealed and delivered the old-fashioned way.

Despite the growing popularity of electronic cards that can deliver singing Santas and dancing reindeer, traditional paper cards are still a solid industry, with an estimated 2 billion expected to fill mailboxes this season.

“Paper cards are here to stay,” said Kathi Mishek, a spokeswoman for Hallmark.com. “We recognize our consumers have a lot to choose from, but they are not substituting one for the other.”

In fact, the majority of Hallmark customers are sending virtual cards and buying traditional paper cards, according to a recent survey conducted by the Kansas City, Mo.-based card giant.

There’s no doubt the on-line greeting-card industry is growing exponentially.

Nearly 38 million people visited the top 10 electronic-card sites in October, compared with 22 million people in October 1999, according to Media Metrix, an Internet tracking company.

About 57 percent of on-line consumers have sent electronic greeting cards or postcards at least once a month during the past year, according to Jupiter Communications.

BlueMountain.com, the largest on-line greeting card site, usually sends about 1 million cards via the Internet each day. But this month the company expects to send out about 100 million electronic cards about 20 million more than in December 1999.

BlueMountain.com says the on-line greeting-card appeal is simple: they are free, personalized cards, delivered immediately with special effects not available on traditional paper cards.

Virtual greetings are getting more and more elaborate, from flashy animation and interactive games to voice attachments and home videos.

But some on-line sites agree that virtual greetings aren’t appropriate for every situation. For instance, people might think twice about sending an electronic sympathy card.

“It’s the old etiquette question sometimes it’s OK and sometimes there’s better options,” Ms. Mishek said. “In the majority of situations, paper cards are still appropriate to send.

The Greeting Card Association says it expects to sell 7 billion paper cards this year, generating an estimated $7.5 billion in sales. Christmas is the biggest card-sending holiday, with Valentine’s Day the second one.

Although more of the free electronic cards are being sent, sales of traditional paper cards, which average $2 to $4 each, are not being negatively affected, said Marianne McDermott, executive vice president of the District-based association.

And there is no sign of sales dipping or of people using on-line cards to the exclusion of paper ones.

In fact, the on-line greeting-card sites are helping the greeting-card industry as a whole.

“Through the Internet and e-mail, many more relationships are being maintained and being established,” Ms. McDermott said.

Electronic cards “increase our communication to each other,” said Nancy Davis, a spokeswoman for AmericanGreetings.com. “It’s a different medium, so senders just have more choices.”

AmericanGreetings.com has about 15,000 cards to choose from, including more than 700 holiday cards. The company won’t disclose the number of cards it expects to send out this month but said the number of visitors to the site in October grew tenfold from October 1999.

“E-cards are a nifty way for people to connect, and that’s Hallmark’s business,” Ms. Mishek said. “But quite frankly, they’re a traffic driver.”

Hallmark.com offers a little more than 1,000 free electronic cards, but the site also sells other products ranging from The Grinch merchandise and Peanuts gifts to Keepsake ornaments and Hallmark Hall of Fame Movies. Hallmark’s main focus is the revenue-generating merchandise, not the free on-line cards, Ms. Mishek said.

Many sites allow consumers to order paper cards on line and have them personalized, addressed and even mailed for them.

Both AmericanGreetings.com and Hallmark.com began that service this year and are finding it a successful addition to the business.

And as technology improves, the electronic card choices will, too.

AmericanGreetings already offers wireless text greetings, and Hallmark is experimenting with some companies in the Netherlands to bring electronic cards to cellular phones.

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