WINTER PARK, Fla. -- An upscale clientele tends to frequent the 30-year-old Paper Shop on Park Avenue here, where much of the business comes from wedding invitations.
Owner Ellen Prague said everyone's been hurt by the economy, and sales declined by 30 percent in 2008 and 2009.
But the drop isn't just about tough times. The Internet has not only changed the way people communicate -- it's created much more competition for traditional card and stationery shops. That's true even at Christmas, the ultimate time of the year for sending greetings through the mail.
This holiday season, the average American will spend $26.10 on cards and postage, according to the National Retail Federation, with 79.7 percent of those surveyed buying them. In 2006, 85.4 percent planned to send cards, spending an average of $30.57.
The cost of postage stamps keeps going up. People are crunched for time.
And options for communicating electronically keep growing. People deliver birthday greetings on Facebook walls and Web sites offer e-cards that often cost nothing -- even for expressing sympathy.
The high-tech trends, combined with a slowing economy, have taken their toll on stores that sell cards. Red Marq, a longtime fixture on Winter Park's Park Avenue, has closed. Hallmark closed in Orlando Fashion Square and Florida Mall. That leaves both malls without a major card shop, since Carlton Cards also left those malls a couple of years ago.
"It's just been a really tough industry over the past 10 years or so," said Ryan Fuhrmann, an Indianapolis-based investment firm owner who has written about American Greetings for Investopedia. "It's been in a ... decline and competing against digital ways to send greetings and basic e-mails."
Card companies are fighting back, with products that have grown increasingly sophisticated. Some cards are practically gifts in themselves, with music, lights, holograms and even digital slide shows.
The industry has come up with cards for everything from divorce to chemo treatment. And card companies are going digital as well, offering iPhone apps and sending e-cards directly to Facebook.
Even more traditional cards' designs are becoming "much more sophisticated ... much more of a piece of art," said Patti Stracher, manager for the National Stationery Show, which greeting card companies attend.
The economy has pushed people further toward cheap, or free, electronic greetings. But this Christmas season, "we do think there's going to be a leveling-off," Stracher said.
"A lot of us received e-greetings and thought, 'Hm, this doesn't feel quite as valuable.' We have a solid hunch there won't be a further decline. ... There's digital overload now."
R. Nichols, which creates cards sold in its Orlando store and in boutiques around the country, said its sales have grown.
The store has focused on blank note cards and has printed holiday cards each season. But it only recently began offering a wider array of cards, priced at around $4.50 apiece.
"We were hesitant" to get into more cards, co-owner Anda Lucia Ariail said. But "that's been a really great way to get into stores we haven't been in."
The store has held the line on its prices for several years, Ariail said, but its clientele tends to have higher incomes.
"It's more of a luxury item," she said. "We also have an older demographic. ... We have a lot of southern ladies, your country club crowd that comes in."
American Greetings -- the country's only major publicly-traded card company -- says the median age of its customers is 47.
It's trying to lure younger customers with cards that display digital slideshows and an iPhone app in which people can browse, personalize and send electronic greeting cards by e-mail. The company has acquired Recycled Paper Greetings and Papyrus, a line of artsy cards sold at chains such as Target. American Greetings also sold the Carlton Card retail-store business.
Independent dealers have had a particularly difficult time, with about a 20 to 30 percent decline over the past five years, Stracher said.
Those that have survived have survived say a loyal clientele and attention to customer service have helped them.
Prague, who keeps up with technology via Twitter and Facebook, thinks there is hope for traditional cards, invitations and stationery.
"There will always be people who are trying to keep up the standards and the old traditions. I think there will always be a need for what we do," she said. "At the moment, it's smaller. Who knows what's coming next? I have no plans of going away."
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