Take a look inside today's greeting-card store. The cards tell about the kinds of occasions Americans celebrate, but they also point to changes on the social landscape.
Beyond birthday wishes and expressions of sympathy, people are sending cards that acknowledge life passages - from job promotions and successful driving tests to divorce and corporate downsizing. Cards are more openly honest about subjects that were once taboo, such as recovery from addiction or relationship troubles. The phrasing is less formal, and verses are often less flowery and more conversational.
Even further, companies - looking to attract the next generation of card buyers - are creating cards that have "attitude," more in-your-face humor and punch.
Because people feel the need to send a personal message in a world of technology and mobility, sales of non-occasion cards have increased dramatically.
"I love sending cards," says card shopper Joyce Seid. "You really are letting someone know you care about them or are thinking about them."
Consumers like Ms. Seid, who is in her early 20s and buys an average of about six cards a month, have caused the marketplace to shift. The big players - American Greetings and Hallmark - are revamping their lines to prepare for the future, when twentysomethings hit their peak card-buying years (generally middle-age, according to card marketers).
So rapidly are trends shifting that American Greetings, for example, is replacing 80 percent of its product in 30,000 retail locations. That translates into more than 100 million new cards in the racks.
Just how much sentiment can a piece of cardboard deliver?
Judging by statistics, a lot.
Greeting card sales have grown from $3.8 billion in 1987 to about $7 billion in 1997, according to the Greeting Card Association (GCA).
Historically, holidays and special occasions have driven card sales (see box below), and the number of them, not surprisingly, has grown. St. Patrick's Day - now being promoted at a store near you - will generate $15 million in sales. Grandparents' Day (the first Sunday after Labor Day) will generate $3 million. Professional Secretary's Day (fourth Wednesday in April) and National Boss's Day (Oct.16) will each generate $1 million.
"What that says is that we're really good capitalists," says Alison Scott, head of the Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "It's fascinating, the way Americans have chosen to express feelings through the marketplace.... We've come to accept and acknowledge the social transaction that $1.95 represents. Money equals love, and that's not a stupid, bad, or vulgar thing."
Beyond calendar holidays and milestones, card-givers - 90 percent of whom are women - see growing value in sending cards as a way to keep in touch, make someone laugh, and offer encouragement.
From an industry that prides itself on responding to changing demographics and social attitudes, wide selection is key.
"There are so many cards for every conceivable situation and occasion. The proliferation is mind-boggling," says Marianne McDermott, executive vice president of the GCA, which represents 1,500 companies.
Changing family dynamics mean more cards for step-parents, step-children, and caregivers. Cards have been created for the avid gardner, Internet fan, and chocolate lover. Sympathy cards for people who have lost a pet sell briskly. So do anniversary cards for those marking 50 years of marriage. And how about a card saying, "Bravo - you've kept your room clean!"?
But just how successful card creators are at addressing the American collective consciousness is debatable.
On the serious side, messages of support and encouragement are more popular than ever. "We're in this together" is a theme that is hugely popular, says Kathy Bernetich, executive director in the creative branch for American Greetings. The number of cards sold under such headings as "friendship," "thinking of you," and "encouragement" have grown substantially.
American Greetings defines part of this trend as "a return to spirituality" that coincides with consumer interest in books on the search for life's meaning.
Hallmark's new line, "Life Songs," is described as "Giving voice to the spirit within." A sample card with a pink rose on the front begins: "We are all on a journey toward becoming a complete person..." Next month, the company plans to introduce a card for people who have lost a loved one to suicide.
Hallmark accounts for about 40 percent of the US greeting-card market, with American Greetings not far behind at about 35 percent. Smaller independents are arriving on the scene, and outlets have increased as well, from Barnes and Noble bookstores to Kinko's copy centers. Supermarkets now devote more floor space to cards.
Humor cards continue to grow "by leaps and bounds," according to GCA's Ms. McDermott. At American Greetings, spokesman John Hernandis goes further, calling humor "beyond a trend. It's more of an anchor."
According to Ms. Bernetich, humorous cards, "are more than communication, they're a form of entertainment."
Personalities, such as Dilbert, characters from TV's "Seinfeld," "The Simpsons," and film's "Wallace and Gromit," borrow from pop culture. At the same time, card companies are inventing their own characters.
One of the biggest sleeper hits has been Maxine, of Hallmark's Shoebox division. Crass and curmudgeonly, Maxine is unapologetic about her age - advising card recipients to kick anyone in the pants who calls them old on their birthday. Maxine has a fan club, a comic strip called "Crabby Road," and a television show on the way. "She rings true," explains spokeswoman Rachel Bolton.
Sometimes companies and card shops can't predict hot sellers. Pet-related cards, such as birthday greetings from one pet to another, are selling off the racks, according to GCA's McDermott.
American Greetings' Bernetich calls the pet phenomenon a big surprise. "These cards have blown out of the water," she says, adding with a slight chuckle, "I don't know what that says about society."
Greeting Card Facts
* The most popular card-sending holidays are, in order, Christmas, Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Easter, and Father's Day.
* Women purchase approximately 90 percent of all greeting cards.
* The average card buyer is a woman in her middle years.
* Of the total greeting cards purchased annually, half are seasonal and the rest are non-occasion cards.
* The average person receives 30 cards per year, eight of which are birthday cards.
* Cards range in price from 50 cents to $10, with the average card retailing at $2.
- Greeting Card Association