Premium stationery is still a thriving business

About-to-be brides are among best customers

November 28, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

ST. LOUIS - When was the last time you got a letter in the mail on real stationery?

Computer-generated or quick-print letterhead doesn't count. We're talking about high-quality paper stock, with the sender's name or initials engraved on the page or the card.

With the increasing popularity of electronic communication, you might think that formal stationery is an endangered species.

Stationers say it isn't, but products have evolved to suit contemporary tastes.

A long table topped with fat books bursting with stationery samples sits in one aisle at Papyrus, a shop at the Galleria mall in St. Louis.

In the books, styles range from exceedingly formal to playful and fun. Traditionally, stationery was available only in ecru or white, but now colors are considered acceptable, and there is a wider variety of typefaces than ever.

"Stationery is definitely more fun than previously," said store owner Tom Viehland. "I sell a lot of it because quality still means a lot to many people."

Fewer people order standard-size sheets of personalized stationery, said Viehland, who has been in the business for eight years. More customers buy personalized note cards, for themselves or as a gift. These are especially popular during the holiday season and are often used as thank-you notes.

"What has changed is the formality of letter writing," Viehland said. "A lot of people still write, but they are writing shorter."

Keri Bauch of Kirkwood, Mo., recently ordered personalized note cards for a specific purpose. "I'm in a job search, and I wanted quality stationery to send thank-you notes to people I interview with as well as people who give me leads," said Bauch, an information technology manager. "I think a nice note card conveys a message about the sender."

Some senders want a nice note card but don't require it to be personalized. The selection of high-quality boxed note cards is bigger than ever. Papyrus carries more than 400 designs, including ones depicting shoes, Hawaiian shirts, old Vogue covers, exotic flowers, maps, animals, lighthouses and cowgirls.

The variation in designs reflects the changing tastes of the customers, said Marcia Conaghan, owner of the Greeting Gallery in Clayton, Mo.

"People are beginning to accept blank cards for all occasions and writing their own messages in them," said Conaghan, who has been in the stationery business for 15 years. "Also, people are more aware of what a good note card is. The art determines what's hot here."

At one time, "art" had no place at Crane & Co. Paper Makers. Today, the St. Louis store has stationery in apple green and turquoise, note cards featuring everything from hedgehogs to handbags, and envelopes lined with a cheetah print or polka dots. Traditional stationery, the kind that epitomizes good taste and careful restraint, is also available.

"We serve two types of customers: those families who have been Crane customers for generations, and those customers who like premium-quality stationery but want something more fun and whimsical," said store manager Marci Millner. "In either instance, note cards are our No. 1 seller."

Crane & Co. was founded in 1801 in Dalton, Mass. Before going into the stationery business, the company printed the first colonial bank notes backed by a colony rather than the English crown. Stephen Crane's mill produced the paper, and Paul Revere engraved the notes.

In 1844, Crane's son, Zenas Crane, who started the stationery business, began placing silk threads in banknote paper to keep it from being counterfeited. The company still supplies paper to the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing and to 40 other countries.

Stationery from Crane & Co. is made from 100 percent cotton fiber paper, which does not break down like paper made from wood pulp.

In addition to the traditionalists and some business clients, one other category of customer is especially attracted to the look and feel of Crane stationery: brides in search of matching wedding invitations, menu cards, napkin rings, place cards, thank-you notes, "Mr. and Mrs." letterhead and announcement cards with the couple's new home address.

"Our wedding business is huge, and this year it's up tremendously," Millner said. "When a bride chooses a style of invitation from our books, we can show her on a computer exactly what the invitation will look like. This is important because some letters look better in some fonts and sizes than others."

The plethora of paper products pitched to brides can add big bucks to the cost of the wedding. Christine Parsons of Maryland Heights, Mo., did some comparison shopping before her marriage late last month.

"I was a thrifty bride," said Parsons, 27. "I went everywhere and checked prices before making decisions." Her invitations, thank-you notes and matchbooks all came from different places.

"If you buy matches where you buy wedding invitations, you'll pay $15 for 250. We went to a printer and had 1,000 matchbooks made for $50," she said. "We skipped name cards altogether - everyone just throws them away. I am thinking of buying some initial note cards later on to use for incidental notes."

Even brides who want everything to match are not necessarily taking a traditional approach. Katie Fechter, a wedding planner who owns Details Event Coordinators, said 75 percent of her brides in the past year have opted for customized printed materials.

"Many of the invitations are more traditional, but for all the collateral materials, brides are going with unusual colors and textures, like chocolate brown Mylar paper with ivory liners," Fechter said.

"Brides want something that makes their weddings stand out, and customized doesn't mean more expensive," she said.

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