Decline of the Greeting Card: We Care Enough to Send Their Very Worst

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At an American Greetings shop

We Americans are famous for our sentimental side. How else do you explain our weepy fascination with the Olympics, or with most of the films of Steven Spielberg? If that's not enough to convince you, don't forget this piece of incontrovertible evidence: We love greeting cards.

Or we used to, anyway. Tuesday, American Greetings Corp., one of the nation's largest card companies, posted a net loss of $80 million, or 15 percent, for the quarter ending May 31st. The card giant blames its downturn on the success of low-cost competition, like cut-rate brands, e-cards and new web sites that will sign and send personalized cards to anyone you choose.

At the risk of sounding like a cranky old person, I would venture another reason for lagging card sales: That the quality of the cards themselves has diminished considerably.

How to save the get-well card

If we're going to keep companies like American Greetings afloat, the industry has some serious work to do. Let's face it: Right now, people are turning to other outlets for their sentimental needs because traditional greeting cards are in a sad state. Gone are the gentle witticisms of the past. In their place, a new breed of cards has emerged: Crass, vulgar and totally inappropriate for anyone not hoping to pledge a particularly odious fraternity.

Case in point: I went into a card store just last week, looking for something to send to my grandmother, who has not been feeling well lately. I knew a card would make her smile, and I wanted something loving but not sappy, written in clear bold letters, not that terrible flowery script. I wanted something she could read and display with some pride. I did not want to send her a card that would make her blush and which she would probably feel the need to hide somewhere. Unfortunately, thirty minutes into my lunch hour, that's pretty much all I'd found. Hello? Doesn't anyone out there in greeting card land have literate grandmothers anymore?

It wasn't always this way

Once upon a time, the news of American Greetings' decline might have upset me, because once upon a time I gave a whole lot of greeting cards. In fact, I nearly single-handedly kept my local card shop in business. In anticipation of a major national holiday (like Columbus Day) or especially important birthday (my dog's, for example), I would troll the aisles for the perfect message, driving the salespeople to distraction by handling, opening and reading card after card. I always avoided those horrible schmaltzy cards with photos of overfed children or sunsets on the front and mind-numbingly bad epic poetry inside. Instead, I'd search out vaguely clever puns, affable humor or subtle photographic cards with blank innards, paired with, I hoped, an inoffensive, non-neon colored envelope. And more often than not, after an hour or so of careful research I'd find something suitable, pay for my treasure and leave the store triumphantly.

Sandra Boynton's creations were staples for years, especially among my high school friends. We exchanged countless cards embossed with Boynton's signature cuddly, chocoholic creatures, never caring that we duplicated our efforts at least once a year. A perennial bestseller bore a takeoff on the famous Hallmark ad line: "I care enough to send the hairy beast," accompanied by a drawing of a fat, furry, grinning monster. And my personal favorite, which I gave at least 5 times to each of my (long-suffering) parents: "I love you. Almost as much as I love chocolate." (Hey, we're Presbyterian. This is what passes for an embarrassing outpouring of sentiment in our house.)

I spent a lot of my adolescent afternoons trying out greeting cards, and even more time imagining intended recipients' reactions. I think I was hoping the perfect card would make it easier to tell the cute guy in chem lab why I was always spilling chemicals on myself when he walked by, or would help me overcome my stubborn streak and finally apologize to a once-close friend. And sometimes the cards worked their magic exactly as I'd hoped — one particularly successful Valentine's Day card paved the way to my first semi-serious relationship. (In ninth-grade terms, of course, that phrase means that we "dated" for more than two weeks during which time may have actually sat in the same room with each other for up to an hour).

But that was long ago

Now that I've gotten marginally better at expressing my emotions without the help of sepia photography or self-deprecating humor, I don't find cards all that helpful anymore. Sure, sometimes I'll stumble upon something I just can't pass by, a card that calls to mind with startling precision some long-lost memory or inside joke. For the most part, though, I find myself feeling inordinately grateful that I've outgrown my card fixation.

So what did I send my grandmother? I finally chose a blank card with a not-horribly-offensive flower on the front and escaped from card hell. Then I made a beeline for the nearest stationery store, where I gathered an armful of plain, heavy Crane's notecards and envelopes. As I stood in line with my selections, I felt a weight lift: Never again will I depend on America's greeting card manufacturers.

From this day forward, I am a free woman, unfettered by the absurd constructs of holiday themes, cringe-inducing prose and those truly loathsome yellow envelopes.