Early this year, Lynda Junge watched her Downers Grove, Ill., wedding invitation business grind to a halt as the coronavirus pandemic caused couples to postpone their nuptials.
On a whim, she designed a handful of Mother’s Day cards for her business, Greenstar Paperie, riffing on social-distancing and other related themes. She posted the cards to the online marketplace Etsy and started hearing cash register-like notifications on her smartphone.
“They went off like crazy,” she said.
Among her bestsellers are cards that say, “Hi friend, this is your snail mail sanity check. You good?” and “Waving from a safe distance. It’s just not the same over Zoom.”
Junge, 41, is expecting an even bigger boom heading into the holiday season as people socially distanced from friends and family look to connect during the emotional roller coaster that is 2020.
A July study by the online photo company Shutterfly found the number of people buying holiday cards this year is expected to increase by 7 percent compared with last year, and that about a third of consumers plan to send more holiday cards this year than last year.
Chicago-based Paper Source said customers are shopping for holiday cards earlier, with some requesting them as early as September. Etsy saw a 23 percent increase in searches for holiday cards last month compared with September of last year.
It’s a welcome turnaround for the $7 billion greeting card industry, which has been on the decline in recent years. Last year, Americans sent about half as many greeting cards in the mail compared with a decade earlier, according to U.S. Post Office data. That’s in part because of the rise of digital alternatives like email, social media and companies that publish photo cards online, like Shutterfly, according to research firm IBISWorld.
But the coronavirus has given an unexpected boost to the industry, with online sales soaring and increased demand from affluent shoppers.
Cardmakers expect higher-than-normal sales during the holidays as people shelter at home with more time on their hands to write and send cards, said George White, president of the Greeting Card Association.
“This could be a powerful moment for our industry,” White said, referring to the pandemic. “Greeting cards have a unique ability to forge connections.”
Many of those holiday card sales will happen online this year. Even before the pandemic, the way customers shop for greeting cards started to shift away from bricks-and-mortar stores and into e-commerce. The advent of online marketplaces like Amazon and Faire.com kick-started the shift to online card buying and in 2019, retailers like CVS Pharmacy and Walmart started giving less space in stores to greeting cards. As with other consumer goods, the virus accelerated the trend, and card retailers set up for online sales, pickup and delivery capitalized on the shift.
From April to June, Paper Source, whose 135 stores were affected by government shutdown orders, saw sales of greeting cards from its website increase tenfold compared with the same time period last year, according to CEO Winnie Park.
Hallmark’s chief marketing officer, Lindsey Roy, said business from hallmark.com increased threefold this year, which Roy attributed to demand for greeting cards. Hallmark, a privately held company that also sells small gifts, ornaments and home decor, declined to disclose sales data.
Roy said the company’s market research shows people are gravitating toward buying cards that reference connection, encouragement and gratitude — themes connected to the pandemic. Paper Source also saw a large increase in purchases of cards in those categories, according to Park.
Emily McDowell, who sells her Emily McDowell & Friends greeting cards through Paper Source and Chicago’s Foursided stores, knows it’s difficult to find the right words to say to someone who has lost their job, a loved one or their source of community. She built her business around making sure people who don’t know what to say to a grieving friend can find a way to connect.
McDowell’s cards contain empathetic messages like, “No card can make this better. But I’m giving you one anyway,” and “I’m really sorry I haven’t been in touch. I didn’t know what to say.”
“People are afraid of saying something wrong and it prevents people from actually reaching out and showing up,” McDowell said. “Cards are an opportunity to start a conversation and to connect at this time when we’re at our lowest and our loneliest.”
Chicagoan Cat Hildner, who owns the online card boutique Kitty Meow, said her sales jumped starting in March and have remained high. She credits her success to the presence she’s built on social media platforms Pinterest and Instagram, where she forges personal connections with customers.
“I think giving people the opportunity to get to know me, the person behind the small business, really, really helped sales,” said Hildner, 35.
One of Hildner’s coronavirus-themed cards says, “You’re essential every day. But especially this holiday season.”
Cardmakers set up for online commerce that cater to wealthier markets have fared the best. Those customers tend to shop at specialty stores and seek out cards with unique messages, which generally sell at higher prices. Those markets are better able to weather economic downturns, which is a competitive advantage, said Kevin Kennedy, an analyst for IBISWorld.
Greeting cards range in price from 50 cents to more than $10, according to the Greeting Card Association. Most cards found in grocery and drugstores range between $2 and $4.
Searches for greeting cards on Etsy, where Junge’s cards sell for $5 to $7, have jumped 73 percent over the last three months compared with the same period last year.
Paper Source, where cards sell for about $5 to $12, bills itself as a lifestyle brand, curating cards from independent card makers. That’s appealing for the demographic that spends more money on greeting cards than any other: millennials. Members of that group are more likely to opt for specialty goods than mass market brands, according to a McKinsey consumer study.
Park said the company’s overall greeting card sales, including in-store purchases, will reach $16 million this year, with income from online sales offsetting declines from the coronavirus’ effect on its bricks-and-mortar stores.
But while some card sellers have gotten a boost from the pandemic, much of the industry has experienced significant declines, according to Kennedy. He said revenue for greeting cards and related products declined 18.4 percent during the second quarter at the height of the pandemic, compared with last year.
In July, Hallmark announced plans to lay off 120 workers. In the same month, The Paper Store, which is a Hallmark partner and part of its Gold Crown stores, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing the impact of the coronavirus on its bricks-and-mortar stores.
Todd Mack, who owns Foursided, a greeting card and picture framing shop, said sales from his four Chicago-area stores dropped close to 95 percent during Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, with scant online purchases coming in, mostly for empathy-themed greeting cards.
“Thankfully, the human need is to still send cards to loved ones regardless of the current state of the pandemic,” said Mack, who reopened his store in late May. “Greeting cards continue to be the little rent payers of our businesses.”
Mack said as of September, card sales have come back to about the same level they were last year, but restrictions on how many people can enter the store and an unwillingness to shop in person are a challenge.
Although a number of locally owned shops near Foursided’s flagship location in the Andersonville neighborhood have closed under the strain of the pandemic, Mack said he has no plans to close and will “suffer through it at all costs.”
Paper Source, boosted by enormous online growth early in the pandemic, has no plans to close its bricks-and-mortar operations despite acquiring 27 stores from bankrupt greeting card and gift retailer Papyrus right before the pandemic. Park said 21 of those locations have been converted to Paper Source stores with the remainder opening by the end of October. Still, the company has made adjustments like imposing pay cuts and reducing in-store staff.
“We’re just trying to survive this period and the down cycle in business because of COVID,” Park said