Hallmark.com Launches Customized Paper Card Service

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Seeking to expand its revenue base, Hallmark.com has launched a customized paper card service stretching from card purchase to mailing that it claims will be a big winner for the greetings and gifts site this holiday season.

A customer retention move, the paper card service targets time-strapped women ages 25 to 45 who use Hallmark services online and offline through its stores.

"At this moment in time, we're not as interested in attracting new users," said Kathi Mishek, publicity manager at Hallmark Cards Inc., Kansas City, MO. "We're really interested in speaking to people who are on our site, who are familiar with the Hallmark persona."

The Greeting Card Association estimates that each U.S. household buys 35 cards per year. Women purchase more than 80 percent of all cards.

The Hallmark service allows consumers to mix and match messages and designs on the site, at www.hallmark.com. Consumers can choose internal messages, color, type fonts and personal closings.

Addresses can be uploaded from the user's e-mail program or PDA or from the "My Hallmark" address book on the site. All information is confidential and limited to use for fulfilling the customer's order.

Once ordered, Hallmark.com will print, stamp and mail these custom paper greeting cards to personal, business and community contacts in the United States. It will even hand-address the cards, something not currently done by its competition.

"We absolutely want this particular product to be our No. 1 or No. 2 product for this season and it's definitely playing out that way," Mishek said. "Quite frankly, the No. 2 product that's selling best [online] is Hallmark's keepsake ornaments."

But offering customized paper cards for consumers is uncharted territory for Hallmark.com. Besides, it is late in the game, beaten to the service by rivals American Greetings Corp.'s AmericanGreetings.com and Bluemountainarts.com -- both partnering with Sparks.com, a site that accepts online orders for paper cards.

AmericanGreetings.com, Hallmark.com's biggest competitor, in May launched a customized paper card service. In association with Sparks.com, the service offers consumers a choice of 13,000 different cards. By contrast, Hallmark.com offers slightly more than 100 cards for customization and delivery.

More telling, Hallmark.com, despite the strength of its parent's 90-year-old brand and $4.9 billion revenue, lags in visitor traffic.

The Hallmark site attracted 2.64 million unique visitors in October, compared with AmericanGreetings.com's 8.32 million and eGreetings.com's 3.99 million, according to Media Metrix's rankings for the flowers, gifts and greetings retail category.

That does not faze Hallmark.com.

"Our site is an e-commerce site that focuses on a gift-related strategy," Mishek said. "We view e-cards as a traffic driver to get into the site."

It is clear, though, that all players involved in offering customized paper cards online and their fulfillment aim to monetize a heavily trafficked electronic greetings segment.

According to Jupiter Research, 55 percent of domestic consumers send electronic greetings, making this the No. 2 activity on the Internet. Most of these e-cards are free.

Hallmark.com's entry will serve to intensify the efforts to grab business in this most critical holiday season for greeting card companies. The GCA estimates that Christmas accounts for one-fourth of all individual seasonal cards sent each year.

"This really is the time that people go and write these cards to all friends and family around the world, kind of recapping everything that's been happening in the past year," said Mary Helen Trent, spokeswoman for Media Metrix, New York.

Still, it is too early to determine the long-term market acceptance of customized paper cards online.

"This market has potential for great growth, but it's still in its infancy," said Nancy Davis, spokeswoman for AmericanGreetings.com.

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