Season’s greeting cards spread a bit thin this year

“A lot of my friends aren’t sending real cards this year,’’ said Peg Willingham. “I suspect every year it will decline, just like the rest of Western civilization.’’ “A lot of my friends aren’t sending real cards this year,’’ said Peg Willingham. “I suspect every year it will decline, just like the rest of Western civilization.’’ (Jonathan Newton/ Washington Post)
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post / December 20, 2009

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WASHINGTON - It’s the middle of December, and Peg Willingham wants to know: Where are all the Christmas cards?

“I’ve only gotten about four,’’ said the Falls Church, Va., mother as she tabulated the meager pile in the little red basket that serves as her card caddy each year. “Normally I’d have a pretty full basket by now, at least 15 or 20 cards. I’m trying not to take it too personally.’’

She shouldn’t. This season is shaping up as a ho-ho-hum year for holiday cards, at least the kind you can collect in a little red basket. Even the post office has noticed a significant thinning of the usual torrent of festive envelopes.

For the first two weeks of December, said Postal Service spokesman Michael Woods, “we are seeing about an 11 percent decrease in first-class cancellations from last year, which is a good proxy for the number of cards and letters coming through the system.’’

And while last-minute mailers are still adding to all those waiting baskets and refrigerator doors, there are signs that plenty of people are giving hard-copy greetings a complete pass this time around.

“We see a 10 to 15 percent decline in the overall volume of mailed paper greeting cards this year,’’ said Neil Hendry, of Datamonitor, a New York-based retail analysis firm. “There are two principle reasons: technology and the economy.’’

Observers say a perfect winter storm may have formed to suppress this year’s holiday mail surge: an unemployment rate that makes a roll of 44-cent stamps one more difficult expense for many people (and adds up to a bleak Christmas letter for friends and family); increasingly popular and cheap (or free) Internet alternatives, such as e-cards and Facebook; and heightened environmental concerns that have some people weighing the carbon footprint of all that cardboard.

The cardmakers’ trade group says it sees nothing amiss, based on an informal survey of Hallmark, American Greetings, and other industry leaders.

“It might be down slightly, but generally speaking, it seems relatively the same as last year,’’ said Barbara Miller, spokeswoman for the Greeting Card Association. “But we’re talking about 2 billion cards here. You have to see something major before the needle even moves.’’

But retailers have a different view, and they see a shift away from cards. Although mega-card-seller Wal-Mart wouldn’t comment on sales for the season, Joshua Thomas, a spokesman for Target, said his company isn’t selling as many as usual.

“Sales of boxed-set holiday cards were not as strong as last year,’’ he said, adding that the cheapest bulk packs of cards are holding their own. “We’re definitely seeing the trend of consumers going online to fulfill their holiday card needs.’’

Printers also say they have seen the demand for custom cards fall as law firms and other businesses trim the trimmings. “It’s probably off by 20 percent,’’ said John Marmas, co-owner of Agile Printing in Washington.

Beth Charbonneau, 35, a psychotherapist from College Park, Md., decided to opt out of sending cards this year. With a busy practice, a 2-year-old daughter, and an onslaught of visiting relations expected in days, Charbonneau reluctantly swapped a holiday greetings model dating back to the 1800s for this four-sentence posting on Facebook: “Dear Everyone, Please consider this your holiday card for the year. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Blessed Yule, and so on. Sorry to be a lame friend but, really, I’m just not Superwoman. I admit defeat on holiday cards.’’

Charbonneau said Facebook provided an irresistible alternative to the time-consuming ritual of buying, addressing, personalizing, and mailing the 30 to 40 cards she usually sends along with a family photo. For one thing, her family and friends no longer need to wait for the annual photo of her daughter since they can now see the countless snapshots she posts online.

Far from accusing Charbonneau of succumbing to the Social Media Network That Stole Christmas, most of her friends applauded, she said. “I like this card . . . consider yours this reply,’’ responded one, closing the yearly greetings loop in eight words and about 10 seconds.

Robin Siegel has found a way to split the difference between techno and traditional by dividing her mailing list. For years, she started before Thanksgiving and spent weeks prepping and posting more than 150 cards, along with her holiday letter and photos. Now she e-mails the letter, with photos embedded, to about 250 computer-literate friends and family. Her older correspondents still get an old-fashioned envelope.

Siegel also sends a hard copy to anyone who still sends her a card, although she, too, has seen a falloff at the inbox this year. “I’ve gotten half of what I normally would.’’

Meanwhile, Willingham’s nearly empty red basket makes her only more determined to get busy with her own stack of envelopes. For her, the physical pleasures of the paper, the photos, the canceled stamps are all too precious to turn over to the cold efficiency of the electronic age. She appreciates the e-mailed holiday letters she’s gotten in lieu of a physical card, but said sitting at a computer to read them feels more like work than Christmas.

“A lot of my friends aren’t sending real cards this year,’’ Willingham said. “I suspect every year it will decline, just like the rest of Western civilization.’’