This Valentine’s Day, last-minute shoppers will have one less place to turn. Carlton Cards and Papyrus, longtime purveyors of mid-price cards, gifts, and gift-wrapping accoutrements, announced this week that it’s closing all of its stores within the next four to six weeks. (Liquidation sales are already underway, so if you’re in the market for, say, a wine glass that says “Party Girl” on it, or a $6.95 roll of wedding-themed wrapping paper, this is your moment.) But this isn’t just about the ease of acquisition for belated birthday cards, or the death of a once-beloved suburban shopping mall staple. This is about us. We’re all too familiar with the reality that any time there’s a major corporate closure or market shift, the question gets asked: Did millennials cause the death of the greeting card industry? Or how about Gen Z, they’re in the mix now too, right?
So, uh, did we? As with most things (see: tuna fish, mayonnaise, marriage), the answer is both yes and no. According to data from the National Retail Federation, which declined to comment on Papyrus specifically, spending on Valentine’s cards (the only card spending it regularly tracks) has mostly trended downward in the past decade. In 2009, 58 percent of people surveyed said they planned to spend on greeting cards. By 2019, that number had dropped to 44 percent. American Greetings, Carlton Cards and Papyrus’s parent company, which is the second-largest greeting card producer aside from Hallmark, had been struggling to stay afloat for a while. In 2013, the once-publicly traded company went private — something that’s not usually a sign of positive financial health. (American Greetings did not respond to a request for comment.)
One obvious reason people may be abstaining from sending paper greeting cards is environmental factors — in a world where plastic straws and non-reusable cups are increasingly taboo, passing along a piece of paper that’s almost inevitably going to end up in the garbage or recycling feels off-message for many of us. While Carlton Cards and Papyrus and other retailers do offer cards and gift wrap made from recycled materials, many consumers still find other alternatives cheaper, easier, and more in line with their values. Or perhaps they just aren’t the places that spring to mind when we think of sustainable gifting.
And then there’s the mail thing. If the concept of having to go out and purchase an envelope and stamp gives you a minor case of hives, you’re far from alone: Apparently, many young people don’t know where to buy the materials necessary to mail their absentee ballots. This aversion to physical mail has actually become a huge problem for the USPS, which is on the brink of financial collapse and is said to be looking to privatize in order to stay afloat. It doesn’t help that mail is also bad for the planet… not that that’s stopped us from Amazon Primeing our hearts out.
None of this means, however, that younger generations are not doing greeting cards. We are! Of course we are — we love nothing more than to celebrate. We’re just doing them differently, when it comes to both content and delivery. Dayna Isom Johnson, a trend expert at Etsy, shares that in the last six months alone, the site has seen a 7 percent uptick in searches for greeting cards.
“While I don't think the sentiment of giving a greeting card has left, what I do think is changing is the message that's being given and what the card actually looks like,” she says. “Shoppers are coming to Etsy because they want to find that special thing that has an element of customization and element of personalization, that's super unique, and completely stands out from those traditional cards that are on shelves right now.”
Isom Johnson notes that many card options on Etsy offer customization — the option to have the creator do a portrait of the recipient, for example — or come in materials like wood or denim that merit display beyond being sympathetically stuck to the fridge for a few months. Some are even made on seed paper that can then be planted. She also notes that, for poor planners, many Etsy shops offer print-at-home or e-card options, which means it’s officially easier than going to a physical store. Other relatively upstart companies like Society6, Papier, and Rifle Paper Co. boast similarly charming offerings.
And there’s plenty of market research to back up the conclusion that this is increasingly what consumers crave. A Deloitte UK report aptly titled “What Makes A Millennial Spend More?” points to an increased demand for experiences and bespoke creations. This concept is nothing new, but market shifts like this one continue to point to the fact that, all other things being equal, younger consumers prefer supporting small artisans over large, faceless corporations. This is especially true when it comes to something like a gift, which functions as a statement on the values of both giver and recipient.
So, is it our fault that Carlton Cards and Papyrus — or The Limited, or Sears, or shopping malls altogether — is falling off the face of the earth? Not really. If we could place blame on a single entity, it might be The Internet (a creation of the Boomer generation, I might add), but even that feels wrong. The fact is, companies, like everything else in this world, aren’t meant to live forever, and as consumers, we often surprise ourselves with the amount of power we have over which ones do. In the meantime, go forth and exchange those bespoke, sustainable cards — it seems they’re here to stay. For now, at least.