American Greetings and Hallmark see growth in specialty cards

By CONNIE MABIN, AP Business Writer

BROOKLYN, Ohio (AP) - Gone are the days when cards congratulating a new baby came in shades of pink and blue with a traditional message marking the birth of one child.

In an attempt to expand their horizons -- and profits -- American Greetings Inc. and other cardmakers are making cards celebrating everything from the adoption of an adolescent to the birth of quadruplets.

Both are categories that didn't exist last year and are considered niche because they are different from the core business of cards for birthdays, major holidays and anniversary greetings.

It's a new twist on an old-fashioned business because it targets small, specific groups of customers willing to pay more for cards unique to diverse lifestyles.

"The value is in the ability to connect," said Rudy Wimmer, a graphic artist who has worked on some of American Greetings new niche cards. "Some of these niche markets need personal touches."

Just this month, American Greetings started a small line of cards targeted toward contemporary Christians, who company executive Tina Benavides describes as "a much younger market. They are heavy believers, but they are less traditional in the way they believe and the way they speak about how they believe."

One card in the line features a cartoonlike pigtailed girl kneeling before her bed, covered with a multicolored quilt. "God always answers his knee-mail!" the caption reads. Another card resembles graffiti, with guitars and drums splashed between the words "Hip, hip Hallelujah!" Inside the card says, "praising God for a friend like you." The cards range in price from just under $2 to about $4.

A newly designed line of greetings marking Black History Month back away from traditional African art and feature images such as a well-dressed woman or quotes from famous blacks. The cards are meant to please more professional, college-educated women who want to celebrate diversity year-round, said Michelle Rankins, editor of the In Rhythm line.

Hallmark Inc. of Kansas City, Mo., offers 250 so-called niche cards -- ones that go beyond the typical categories of birthday, major holiday or anniversary considered the companies' core business.

Some of the most popular include divorce announcements, missionary encouragement and birthday cards to people from their pets, said spokeswoman Rachel Bolton.

"The reason for the increasing number of and interest in niche cards is that people's lives have changed, lifestyles have changed, demographics have changed, attitudes have changed and national and world events have changed," Bolton said.

It's unusual for big companies to take chances on such small pools of customers, said Chakravarthi Narasimhan, a professor of marketing at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

But Narasimhan said the cardmakers may be able to get away with it because there is little new cost associated with making the niche products and there's little risk of scaring away core customers.

American Greetings said one of its most promising niche lines is a high-end line aimed at college-educated women who earn more than $50,000 annually.

The cards carry various messages, including traditional greetings. But they're made from heavier paper, handmade paper or feature embellishments such as silk ribbon or cellophane-wrapped plastic art depicting things such as a baby carriage. The cards can sell for more than $4 each.

"If it's exactly what you want you'll be willing to pay a few more dollars," Narasimhan said.

Steve Waltos of Cleveland was willing to spend whatever it took to find the perfect birthday card for his fiancee during a recent stop at a downtown store.

"Guys, usually all that we care about is the basic cards, you know like birthdays and Valentine's Day," he said as he browsed a rack of greetings. "But if they had a card specifically for a fiancee, I'd buy it."

American Greetings has experimented with niche cards before such as offering a line of patriotic cards intended to boost the morale of U.S. troops in Iraq in 2003. But the world's largest publicly held greeting card maker with annual sales of $2 billion said it just recently started expanding the idea because of customer demand.

Computers make it easier and faster to track what customers want, and, in the Internet age, customers expect on-demand, updated products, the company said.

Also, more quickly and thoroughly communicating with large retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target allows American Greetings to stay on top of trends and more quickly produce hot selling cards tailored to the trends, Benavides said.

The Cleveland area company estimates more than 10 percent of its sales are from niche cards, a number executives say is consistently growing.

Privately held Hallmark, which has annual sales of $4 billion, said it was unable to give dollar figures for its niche cards sales. Bolton said her company estimates that 3 percent of all greeting cards sold are considered niche.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)