Season's greetings get a high-tech, personal touch

December 10, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

There's more high technology in the cards for consumers - greeting cards, that is.

Greeting card companies are increasingly setting up computer-equipped booths or kiosks, providing more consumers with the opportunity to create personalized Yuletide messages.

"I want to create a Christmas card for a friend because my friends are really impressed when they see their name on a card," said Raquel Reynolds, 15, while comparing kiosk operations at two card shops at the Fox Hills Mall in Culver City, a suburb of Los Angeles.

"I like it because it looks professional even though it's personalized," said Lynda Plant, an English teacher, as she created a message for a "world-class" friend at the same mall.

The personalized card is not new. Card shops and stationery stores have, upon request, offered individualized cards for years. And a number of firms have offered personalized cards for catalog purchases of a minimum of 25 cards.

However, the computerized greeting-card-producing kiosk is a fairly new approach to the personalized card business. And the industry is getting the message: There are big bucks in individualized greetings during the Christmas season.

Sales of personalized Christmas cards have risen 20 percent since 1986, accounting for sales of about $200 million in 1991. The greeting card industry's total sales were $5 billion that year.

The two giants of the business -- St. Louis, Mo.-based Hallmark Cards and Cleveland-based American Greetings Corp. -- are rapidly expanding their computer kiosk system. Both companies charge $3.50 for a personalized card.

(Card-O-Rama in Marley Station and the Card Shop at Towson Town Center are among Baltimore area malls that offer the personalized cards.)

Small and medium-sized greeting card companies are also developing kiosks or software that generate personalized cards.

For example, Boston-based Inscribe Pop Inc. is competing on the East Coast with its "Print a Little Message" kiosks, which will write limericks or free-verse poetry when told the occasion, the intended's name and two adjectives describing that person.

At personalized card kiosks, consumers are given a choice of drawings or images for various occasions, although some kiosks allow shoppers to pen their own artwork. Shoppers are given a selection of messages, or they can write their own, or they may be given part of a message and allowed to fill in the balance with their own words.

Sometimes those words aren't very nice. In fact, some customers have tried to create messages that include words that some consider obscene, said Kelley Frazer, a sales clerk at a card shop at the Fox Hills Mall.

"Some are trying to be funny by using these words," Ms. Frazer said. "Some are doing it in a meaner spirit."

Whether it's the Christmas spirit or a less noble one, shoppers who try to use words that some consider obscene will be frustrated if they include such language at Hallmark's "Personalize It" kiosks. Such words are not in the machine's vocabulary and will not print out if typed onto the computer screen.

Although customers do not have complete creative freedom in determining what to write on their cards, Hallmark spokeswoman Sherry Timbrook said that sales of Hallmark personalized cards have exceeded the company's expectations. Hallmark currently has 900 kiosks in 26 states but plans to have about 1,900 computerized outlets in 50 states by next June.

"Personalized cards are filling a niche," she said. "Today, consumers are looking for individuality in the products they buy. You can attract buyers if you make them feel unique and special."

American Greetings, which has 1,000 kiosks in 23 states, plans to have 2,500 outlets nationwide by mid-1993. Based on sales last month at its "CreataCard" kiosks, American Greetings projected $35 million in sales over the 12-month period that ends in November 1993.

"A lot of younger shoppers are opting for the cards because they grew up in the computer age and are familiar and comfortable with computers," said Rhonda Rybka, a spokeswoman for the Cleveland-based American Greetings. "Industry-wide, women purchase about 90 percent of all [non-personalized] greeting cards. But men account for about 35 percent of the purchases of personalized cards."

Ms. Rybka said company research shows that many men use kiosks because they tend to be attracted to new technology.

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