Since most sales statistics for the card industry are based on figures from large or publicly traded corporations, it is hard to know what is going on in the independent card market.
To find out what is happening in the alternative card industry, I interviewed six independently owned gift and card stores in Berkeley. I talked to ten different people and asked them what trends they are seeing in card sales. Some of the best news was that there is an increase in sales of handmade and hand-embellished cards.
Here are the notes from my interviews:
Here are what the stores reported on sales trends:
- All stores reported an increase in greeting card sales over the last two years. When I asked them to respond to negative news articles I'd read on the greeting card industry, they felt those statistics did not apply to their store.
- The gift oriented stores reported that cards are a popular item in their store and customers often look at the racks.
- Most stores are selling more artistic, handmade and local artist's cards.
- One store manager who had a significant increase in card sales this year attributed it to "people want to touch paper again."
- One stationery store reported that it was common for a customer to come to the register with $35-$40 worth of greeting cards. He said that customers will buy a lot of cards because they like a particular art style or theme (and not necessarily because they need greeting cards).
- One upscale greeting card store is expanding to two local branches.
- All the stores said they felt they served a completely different market than chain stores that carry greeting cards. One store reported "People who buy cards in our store take time to evaluate them. People who are just running errands or need to buy a card out of an obligation tend to buy cards in drugstore chains."
Here are what the stores reported on customer trends:
- Buyers are now willing to spend $5 per card.
- Younger "hipster" buyers are coming into the market.
- Two stores reported that customers will buy cards to keep and frame for inspiration.
- One store reported that their customers often ask for help when selecting a card.
- Some stores reported that customers ask about "the story" behind the card publisher or the artist.
- One store clerk said she received special training on learning about the artists, and the different paper qualities of cards.
CARD DESIGN TRENDS
- More cards are now being packaged and protected in individual cellophane bags because they are handmade or have embellishments added.
- Almost every store strongly emphasized that their customers buy cards for the interesting imagery, and not for text. Text is not as important as it might have been in the past.
- One store said trends are moving towards "thought-provoking" imagery. These are images that make the customer ask "what is this about?"
- Here are some examples of images the stores pointed out as being good sellers:
*Note: None of these cards had words on them.
- A moose riding a bicycle.
- Mute-colored, over-sized serious clown with a tiny head.
- A loosely drawn ballerina with glitter sprinkled on it.
- A geometric-shaped man that only covered a small edge of the card.
- Green letter press card with a man's exterior head and internal ribs.
- Two stores reported that they make a point of encouraging customers to come up with their own text for the inside. One store specifically advises customers to search on google if they get stuck. These stores seem to prefer blank cards.
ADVICE FOR ARTISTS
I asked stores what they suggest artists do if they want to succeed in the card business today. Here are their responses:
- Pay special attention to your image. It is more important today than it used to be.
- Witty text isn't as necessary as it used to be. For example, leaving it blank or just saying "happy birthday" can be good enough.
- Designers should create more cards that can be bought any day of the year (and not limit them to an occasion).
- Artists should try to make cards that are curious and unpredictable.
- If an artist is just starting out, they should focus on creating Birthday, Thank You, Valentine's day and blank cards (no words).
- One store said that artists should be very careful about over-investing financially. She said some of her favorite designers did not display at a recent gift show* and she later found out they had quit the business because they couldn't afford it.
While my informal survey was limited to Northern California, the responses are also consistent with the IBIS World Procurement Report on the state of the greeting card industry. This report stated that overall corporate card sales were down, but that "Areas of growth are likely small geographic areas and niches in the market."
If you are an independent designer or handmade artist, what is your experience?