Nearly a generation after the electronic postcard was introduced, demand for digital greeting cards surged last year as the pandemic isolated people from their social circles.
With in-person interactions reduced and stores closed, people seeking to connect with family, friends and co-workers embraced e-cards, a gimmick that had a heyday in an earlier internet era but had largely faded away.
Alexandra Suazo, a digital marketing professional in Madison, Wis., said she started using e-cards in March last year to add a personal touch at a time when remote working and so many other aspects of life felt impersonal.
“It was one of the easiest ways to keep up team morale,” she said. “I’ll sometimes send them as one-offs, especially if they’re cute and will make someone’s day.”
American Greetings, one of the behemoths of the greeting card world, would not disclose exact sales figures. But Rob Matousek, the executive director for the company’s digital business, said it had seen record growth since the beginning of coronavirus restrictions, with demand around Easter last year reaching close to what the publisher would usually expect for a Christmas holiday.
“If they weren’t physically getting together with friends and loved ones, people wanted to do something that was personal,” said Kelly Ricker, chief creative officer at American Greetings, which owns the Blue Mountain e-card website. “It was a nice way to let them know you’re thinking about them.”
With many stores closed for long periods of 2020, the greeting card industry’s revenue from sales of paper products in the United States declined by 13 percent last year, according to IBISWorld, an industry research company.
It was a different story for e-cards and online orders of paper cards, IBISWorld said in a report.
Revenue increased 23.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, almost doubling the previous year’s revenue growth. Some companies operating in the $1.3 billion online card market even reported triple-digit growth, the research firm said.
The surge in a desire to connect with others through sending cards made sense to Simeon Yates, a professor of digital culture at the University of Liverpool in England. “It reflects the fact that people are wanting to show that they care, with that extra piece of effort of producing a written artifact to send, even if it’s a digital one,” Professor Yates said.
As 2021 progresses and more brick-and-mortar stores reopen, the days of the surprise renaissance for e-cards could be numbered.
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Though a spokeswoman for American Greetings said recent holidays like Mother’s Day turned out strong performances for both paper and e-cards, Jack Daly, an industry research analyst at IBISWorld, said he expected the revived interest in e-cards to be temporary.
“The boom in growth will taper off,” Mr. Daly said. The research firm estimates the online card market’s revenue growth will drop sharply from 2020’s peak to around 1.6 percent growth in 2021.
Confidence in the e-card market also suffered a blow when the greeting card giant Hallmark ended its 24-year run in the e-card market in April. A spokeswoman said the company had discontinued the online service as part of an ongoing business transformation, not because of declining interest.
For some consumers who use both formats, paper will always hold a special place. “There is still a cultural significance around receiving cards in the mail,” Mr. Daly said.
Jessica Filzen, who runs a marketing agency in Monterey, Calif., has been sending e-cards and printed cards to her family for years. She said she proudly displays the intricately cut paper anniversary card her husband gave her two years ago on her desk, admitting that for all the convenience of e-cards, she still treasures the art of the printed format more.
While some might think e-cards are a blast from the past, industry professionals predict that it’s paper cards that younger generations will covet for their sense of nostalgia.
As people enter what Ms. Ricker at American Greetings called their “card-sending years” — their 20s and 30s, when friends start getting engaged and having children — she said “the paper card really stands out as something special to them,” in part because it’s a bit of a novelty for generations who spend so much time on their cellphones. “It’s a sort of retro feeling to it.”