A Christmas-card category known as "difficult times" has undergone significant expansion since last year. About two dozen such offerings are on display this season from Hallmark Cards Inc., up from five last Christmas. "We can say it," says one new Hallmark message: "This wasn't the year that any of us had hoped for."
Recession-related sentiments might seem obvious at a time of double-digit unemployment, especially considering that Hallmark in April announced layoffs of perhaps 8% of its work force.
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But product development takes time at Hallmark. Even in an era of do-it-yourself instant cards, privately held Hallmark can require a yearlong lead time, in part because of mass production: It holds a more than 60% share of the $7.5 billion-a-year greeting-card market.
So its Christmas 2009 offerings reflect decisions made a year ago, during a season of tanking markets, auto-maker insolvency and soaring unemployment.
Card designers at Hallmark gathered to ponder the same questions addressed at meetings of economists and policy makers in New York and Washington: How long would the recession last, and how deeply would it cut? Or as Mark Andrews, a product manager for Hallmark Christmas cards, puts it: "It was time to put on our economy hats."
To be sure, an economic summit at Hallmark is less like a meeting of the Federal Reserve than a coffee klatch. The creative team at the card maker is nearly 700 strong, making Kansas City, Mo., home to one of the nation's largest concentrations of professional artists. Unlike many economists, they foresaw no significant turnaround in the second half of 2009. "Everybody in our meetings had a sister or somebody they knew being laid off, and maybe having to move away from the family," recalls Leslie Baugher, a Hallmark editorial director.
Now, Hallmark's card-designing team is looking ahead to Christmas 2010, when it expects mitigated cheer. In fact, Hallmark might expand its line of difficult-times cards, based on "what I see in the marketplace, in society in general and in families," says Mr. Andrews, the product manager.
Hallmark says it is too early to tell whether consumers are buying Christmas cards that "don't sugarcoat" economic worries, as Mr. Andrews puts it. "We don't have to have a lot to have everything," says one card. Adds another: "We can still hold on to the things that will never change."
Rival American Greetings Corp. is taking a different tack, avoiding any overt references to economic troubles. "We have found that consumers want to share warm, optimistic and hopeful messages during the holiday season," says American Greetings spokesman Frank Cirillo.
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