Good News for Indie Card Artists: New Sales Trends

If you publish your own cards, or design handmade cards, there are some positive trends leaning your way.

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.

Here are what the stores reported on 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:
  1. A moose riding a bicycle.
  2. Mute-colored, over-sized serious clown with a tiny head.
  3. A loosely drawn ballerina with glitter sprinkled on it.
  4. A geometric-shaped man that only covered a small edge of the card.
  5. Green letter press card with a man's exterior head and internal ribs.
*Note: None of these cards had words on them.
  • 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. 


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.
*Kate's note: Some gift show fees can range from $5,000-$8000.


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?


Coming Abstractions said...

Excellent feedback from the shop owners, Kate -- thank you for sharing this important information with us!!

Kate Harper said...

Hi JJ! Thanks for the feedback. It was very exciting to interview the stores. I really expected they would say card sales are down, and they were very firm in telling me that is NOT the case at all. Some stores are even expanding the amount of cards they carry.

Clare said...

Thanks for this insightful information! Very interesting! Great news about the handmade card sales!

Unknown said...

I found your comment about blank cards interesting. I was told very firmly by a former rep who has become quite 'famous' for running business programs for artists that I would never get anywhere because I was selling blank cards in my shop. She felt I was doing everything wrong and not at all in step with the card industry. So it was heartening to see these comments.

artistretreat said...

hope you did your research on a fine day...very helpful

Anonymous said...

Kate this is VERY encouraging for me and my tiny greeting card business. My cards fit directly into that model: big on imagery, not so much on words. The mainstream (generally negative) news about the greeting card industry has been perplexing, because mine seem to sell just fine in little boutiques, gift shops and bookstores here in Vermont. I have a couple of stores that have asked for "more blank cards please" this past year, too. Very encouraging trend, thank you so much for doing this legwork!

Unknown said...

I love this post! An enlightening, informative and inspirational post on an industry I am in and love.
Thank you for posting!

Anonymous said...

Great blog, Kate! Thank you for doing this research, and posting this. Very interesting information!

Kate Harper said...

Thanks for all the great feedback. I encourage all of you to walk into a store and ask these questions. Tell them you are an artist and you want to learn. Retail stores are very generous when it comes to helping artists. Tell me what you find out and I'll post your story and website on this blog.

Kate Harper said...

Artist Nancy Overton emailed me and confirmed that blank cards sell better than greeted. She said: "This research seems to be confirmed by my card sales. I publish my own cards and I have 12 cards with sayings and they are at the bottom of my sales (of course it could be the design or the sayings), but in general my blanks out sell them 20 to 1. I always design in series of four or six related images, as I think people do buy sets of things if they like the subject matter. My strongest sales are of my visually strong images that can be seen across the store." Her worded cards are called "Occasions" , and all the rest are blank. see: www.nancyovertondesign.com

Unknown said...

Kate-- I so appreciate your research! I've been designing/marketing/schlepping my cards all over the country for 13 years and I am always surprised when the audience who finds my work and goes "gaga!" over a well-made unique handmade card and are willing to pay $12 for it! I now have several printed lines which do have text (Birthday and Wisdom/Get On with it-inspired messages) and they sell for $5. I've discovered that my brand of art falls outside of the traditional card offerings. I do agree that the "story" behind your cards can be very important and my personal story for my " I'M SKEWED: Encouragement Cards with a Twist!" was created when my now-late husband Ken, was dealing with skin cancer that left him without sight. I started designing in Illustrator and these characters came to me with messages to look at your life's challenges with a fresh perspective. This added a whole new dimension to my line -- and while most of the cards are blank -- the messaging plays a huge part (together with the art-visual of the card) and the person they are going to affect by sending those words -- which are in the categories of creativity and self-expression, wellness, love, finding your purpose and getting on with it.

I used to have a rep for my handmade cards and that proved difficult because I had a one-of-a-kind handmade line that they found hard to translate to store buyers because I do custom work and couldn't fulfill consistent multiple images. Now I just tell stores that the images will come "assorted" and that seems to work better. The stores I sell to have more high-end/intellectual-based merchandise --but even when I participate in Art Fairs, there seems to be all kinds of customers who still like to "touch paper " and send special correspondence to their loved ones and friends. My target audience is 40-65 (men and women). I sell the cards as single items and not in packs. People send my Art Cards as "gifts" and often frame them --so while they might perceive the card as "expensive for a card" based on cards that they routinely see in big box stores -- I am educating them instead to appreciate it as a signed, piece of Art so they hopefully re-frame the purchase in their mind to be a gift under $15. We all forget that our work isn't for everyone and that's okay. There's enough to go around. People will always need to be uplifted and in the electronic age where communication is becoming less personal, I feel we will always have a way to "reach out and touch someone" that brings a smile to someone's face that shows "we cared to send the very best!" Kate -Great Posts and discussions! Elisa Goodman - owner/designer - CURMUDGEON CARDS www.curmudgeoncards.com

Kate Harper said...


Love your story and your CARDS! How wonderful that you shared it. I wish everyone would share their story like you have. Would you be interested in telling your story in article form? I'd be interested in creating a blog article out of it. -Kate

Unknown said...

Hi Kate-- absolutely! You can reach me at curmudgeoncards@earthlink.net or 323.839.0128 (cell). I have yet to start my own blog-- you know--I about to launch a new wordpress website so I will start to blog soon. But let's talk -- I may be in SF for the Celebration of Craftswomen show over Veteran's Day--it sounds like you are in the Bay Area---do you also exhibit with your work? Let's talk soon!


Unknown said...

Hi Kate,

Fabulous post, really interesting to see the differences between the UK and US greeting card markets. Blank cards are very popular in the UK and most cards will be delivered in individual cello wrapping even if some shops occasionally choose to remove this.

Sheila Golden said...

Thanks, Kate for the helpful info. I only do blank cards now, and will do more individual one-of-a kind.
Amazing stories here as well.