STAFF at Regent Group, a small stationery firm in Shipley, West Yorkshire, may not have a very merry Christmas. In mid-October their employer, which produces greeting cards
"The traditional Christmas is declining," believes Dame Hilary Blume, the director of the Charities Advisory Trust, a trade group that set up Card Aid , a charitable campaign that gives a portion of revenue from card sales to charity. One of the main traditions of Christmas-sending paper cards-appears to be on the wane. That is bad news for the greeting card industry which makes 10% of its sales over the festive season. Analysts IBISWorld forecast an annual 2.5% contraction of the sector in the next five years.
In 2009 the Greeting Card Association (GCA), an industry body, reported ?172m ($281m) of card sales over the festive season; last year, sales stood at ?164m. The Charities Advisory Trust believes the decline is more precipitous than that: it says shops are stocking fewer cards, with nine in ten retailers reducing their offerings by an average of 40%.
All the while the margins of producers are being pressed. The average price of a Christmas card sold in Britain last year was a mere ?1.62, according to the GCA. At a 2012 meeting of greeting card manufacturers the rise of budget retailers such as Card Factory, and shoppers'' increasing reliance on supermarkets, rather than specialist shops, was cited as the cause.
These outlets favour Chinese manufacturers over domestic producers of greeting cards. Even the bigger beasts in the greeting cards world are struggling: Hallmark, a multinational conglomerate, recently shut two factories in America and Canada. Last year Clinton Cards, a retailer of greeting cards, entered administration.
Those who still want to send cards are dissuaded by the expense. In Britain, Royal Mail stamp prices have risen by 30% in the past two years. For no cost, people can send an e-card, an interactive greeting, via e-mail. And if they would rather avoid the chintzy bells and whistles, they can leave messages on their friends'' Facebook profiles wishing them a merry Christmas.
Print-on-demand technology has also shaken up the greeting card industry. Many consumers now prefer to design their own cards and have them professionally printed through sites such as Moonpig, rather than relying on trite messages written by copywriters.
There may still be hope for the greeting card industry. It has lost ground to the internet, but an internet technology could yet reinvigorate it. Two designers in New York have found a way to embed animated digital pictures, or GIFs, into greeting cards. But delivery still relies on the old-fashioned postal system. Christmas orders closed on December 17th.