Greeting Cards

Greeting cards are frequently used but often overlooked. A closer look at this market reveals that cards are personalized gift items, used to connect individuals and express relationships. By Janice Vis

Think back to your last special occasion. Perhaps it was a birthday, anniversary, or graduation. You probably received (and hopefully read) a card. Special occasion and greeting cards are not readily considered as popular print, but they are a print form that Edmonton’s residents use regularly.

But.... why? Why buy cards at all? In an age of ecards and Facebook greetings, why spend the time and money picking up a paper card?



The digital world has impacted the card market, causing some card giants to resort to layoffs or store closures. But the market isn’t dead yet. Commercial chains still dedicate expansive aisles to paper cards, and independent cards store continue to turn a profit. For some, giving paper cards is an act of social obligation. Others may not be familiar with social media or ecards. Moreover, print cards are considered personal items.

The Chicken Scratch on Edmonton’s historic Whyte Avenue was one of the first card stores I visited. While I was there, I observed two women sifting through cards, laughing together as they read various punchlines aloud. It wasn’t long before a store employee joined them, enjoying the humorous cards while helping them search the racks for they needed. Before leaving the store, the employee casually asked their plans for the rest of the day. To the surprise of both myself and the store worker, the women clarified that they were complete strangers, and had never met before they began to look at cards together!

But perhaps it’s fitting that greeting cards could inspire friendships. Cards are all about the bonds between people. They allowed those two women to connect on a personal level – and it is the personal that separates paper cards from internet greetings.

Physical cards are often thought to be more intimate the internet greetings. Consumers frequently referred to paper cards as “real” cards, indicating that they carry an authenticity that internet greetings lacked, and are a better indicator of a close relationship. Cards can be considered a small gift unto themselves. As such, they need to fit the receiver and the circumstance just as well as a gift would, and so consumers are encouraged to find a card that seems it was specifically made for the individual and occasion. To ensure that a consumer can find the card that fits their occasion, card sellers carry a wide variety.

Consider an experience I had in West Edmonton Mall’s branch of the commercial card store Hallmark. While examining the selection, I witnessed an elderly woman spout excitedly to a cashier about a card she’d found, repeatedly emphasizing how it was simply perfect for the recipient. The card felt personal.

Now examine the card shown, bought from a local Safeway. It might be described as a typical birthday card at first glance. But it’s hard to imagine such a generic birthday card yielding the excitement I saw from that woman or being labelled as “just perfect” for anybody. Such ordinary-looking cards aren’t in the majority. Randomly selecting a card for the birthday section probably won’t yield something quite so normal.

You’re more likely to find something... well, something like a cupcake spouting bad pick-up lines...

Or maybe baby dinosaurs (they’re finger puppets!)...


Or even a chubby man looking down his underwear.


Most cards don’t look like they could be given to just anyone. They are designed for specific ages and genders. Cards recognize that a recipient likes certain hobby, follows a celebrity, loves a cartoon character, or has a particular sense of humor. The specificity increases to include the giver as well, as cards made to be given “from me” or “from us,” as well as from a parent, child, friend, and so forth.

The card shown here, for example, was made to be given from a child to a grandfather. Assuming that the parents are purchasing the card, the tradition of card-giving is instilled early in life.


The “specifics” of cards are not represented equally. Generally, stores offer more female birthday cards than male, and female cards are more likely to be sentimental. Gendered stereotypes are abundant in card design. Girls cards have flowers and butterflies; boys have cars and skateboards. Cards aimed at an older audience are no different. For example, men’s cards feature beer while women’s are more likely to use wine. Additionally, birthday cards for kids are specific for each year, while adult birthday cards generally only age-specific for decades. Wedding cards generally assume heterosexuality, although this is beginning to change as card companies introduce products aimed at same-sex couples. Stores also often offer a few cards generically labelled as “religious,” and these are nearly always associated with Christianity or Judaism.


It isn’t just the specifics that make cards feel personal. Cards themselves are often designed to feel like a small gift. They often use labels to suggest they were crafted to fit each specific person who receives them. They often include descriptions such as “made just for you” or “crafted with the utmost care.” Sometimes, cards will include details about the life and artistic work of the artistic mind behind the card, which make it feel more personal and homemade.


Card design is also incorporating more untraditional materials, such as cloth, sticking, or metal bits. This makes the design look more creative, and the card appears more like a craft item than a commercial product. Generally, cards with unusual materials lean towards the higher end of the price ranger, selling for about six dollars. Another trend in the greeting card market is small gifts in cards. Bookmarks, stickers, or small charms make cards feel like a present rather than simple slips of paper.


Sometimes, these other materials also include electronics, such as lights on speakers. These, along with images of the latest celebs, trendy phrases, or nods to social media make some cards feel modern. Most commercial stores sell these kinds of items. For example, I picked up this very sparkly card from a Shoppers with the popular saying “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Contrastingly, some independent stores that sell cards as vintage items, using aesthetics reminiscent of stamps, black and white photographs, and typewriter print.

Birthday cards, cards made for commemorations, and holiday cards, are all occasion cards; they are sold for a specific circumstance or event. But not all cards are made for an occasion. Some are simply made as greeting cards to be used on a variety of occasions, or simply to say hello and brighten a friend’s day. They might contain general phrases or humorous lines, and many are left blank inside. But even these cards are advertised as personal, with phrases like “blank for your own message.” Greeting cards are still made and selected to fit the specific receiver, whether male or female, a fan of cute animals or monster trucks, or fond of witty sayings.


The most significant type of unspecific cards are packaged cards. These are mainly given due to social obligation, and are sent out to a large group of people connected to an event, such as a baby shower or office party. These sold at commercial chains, dollar stores, and stationary or papers stores. These cards are neutral and non-offensive, and perhaps the only cards which seem impersonal. Packages can cost between and twenty dollars, leaving the price per card around one dollar.

The design or targeted market for greeting cards does little good unless consumers are actually buying these items. You may have noticed that my experiences at card stores involved women. According to Carlton Cards, (associated with card giant American Greetings), most of Canadian card buyers are female. Fittingly, I never once saw a lone male purchasing a card while journeying to card stores around the city. Of course, this doesn’t mean that men do not use cards, only that they are generally not the ones who are finding and purchasing the card that is “just perfect.”

There are many places for consumers to find the perfect card. Cards are sold in dollar stores, bookstores, grocery and drug stores, independent and commercial sellers, and tourist attractions. When cards are not primary stock object, they are often found on spinning racks near the front door or in an out-of-the-way corner.


Card stores organize their stock by occasion, with an exception for specialty lines and locally made cards which have their own racks. Displays of items for the next upcoming occasion or holiday are placed near the front and can take up as much a half the store. Carlton Cards labels Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s Day as their most popular seasonal cards. The seasonal stock is frequently overturned and either put in storage or sent back to the manufacturer.

The remainder of the stock consists of year-round cards, including birthday, sympathy, get well, thanks, anniversary, congratulations on a newborn, retirement, wedding, and encouragement cards. The birthday section is nearly always a store’s largest.


But while these few trends seem to be common across all Edmonton’s card sellers, there are considerable differences between the selection and selling practises at these stores.

Dollar stores are the cheapest places to buy cards, where they sell for (surprise!) one dollar. These stores carry cards for traditional occasions like birthdays and weddings, but have a neutral stock with minimal adult content or off-beat humour. Despite the cheap price, cards at these stores do not appear to be printed on lower quality paper, but rarely us other materials like cloth or metal bits in card design. Consumers should also be wary of ill-treated products, such as cards with folded corners or envelops that are too large or too small.

Grocery and drug stores sell commercially printed cards, usually from the brands Hallmark or Carlton which dominate the greeting card market across North America. A keen eye might spot a few raunchy cards in these stores, but as a whole the stock is fairly inoffensive.

Cards The selling practises of grocery and drug stores equate cards with toothbrushes or electric mixers; they are just another consumer product. Cards are not specially packaged upon sale and store employees appear mostly uninterested in a consumer’s ability to navigate through the expansive card displays. Convenience appears to be the main focus of these stores, as card shelves are placed strategically near gift cards, boxes of chocolates, and wrapping paper.

But while searching through racks of cards in search of the perfect item, consumers might be forgetting to check the price of what they’re buying. When bringing up the subject of greeting cards, I was frequently surprised that many people who used cards often couldn’t say exactly how much they were spending – and were rather sheepish to learn that most cards sell for four to seven dollars.

Despite that large chain companies like Hallmark and Carlton share their brand name with the stock at other stores, the selling practises at these companies’ own specialty card stores are quite different. Rather than simply being consumer products, cards are treated as gift items. The selection is greater and includes more adult humor. Specialty lines are displayed on separate racks. Bought cards handed to the customer in a printed paper or gift bag. Store employees almost always ask how they can help a consumer find the card that fits their occasion.

Although these stores specialize in cards, they also small gift items such a books, sweets, and decorative household items. Commercial card, grocery, and drugs stores also sell paper cards for gift cards and cash presents. These are small, generally blank inside, and have minimal print. They are also cheaper, selling for around three dollars.


The stock offered at one commercial card location may not be identical to the stock at another store. Consider Hallmark, which operates as a franchise chain with independent store owners working in tandem with the company. Business owners pay Hallmark for their inventory, but Hallmark takes responsibility for the shipping of all materials. Select inventory is required in order to adhere to national advertising campaigns, but the store owner has some autonomy in deciding what products to offer. This provides allows each store to be tailored to its surroundings. Edmonton currently has four Hallmark stores, and while the franchise acknowledges that there may be some room for new stores in Alberta, there is no immediate need for another location in Edmonton.

Stationary stores also sell greeting cards, and are more likely to carry specialty lines or designer brands. While visiting Papyrus in Southgate Mall, I found a laser-cut wedding card that as much a decorative item as a card, even advertising itself as “displayable.” Consumers pay for these fancier items though, as this decorative item cost more than ten dollars.

Designer labels or lines are bought at commercial book and stationary stores, but generally not at locally owned shops. They are considerably more expensive, costing as much as fifteen dollars. This card is part of a Kate Spade set. Generally, these items are advertised as part of a varied selection of designer items. For example, Kate Spade cards are advertised with Kate Spade notebooks and pens.

Tourist attractions gift shops, such as that found in the Art Gallery of Alberta, also have racks of greeting or post cards. At the AGA, these items feature artwork based off historic works, pieces current exhibition, work from local artists, and photography from around the city. These gift shops usually do not sell special occasion cards. Most of their stock is blank greeting cards or postcards.


Independent stores have similar consumer-focussed selling practises to Hallmark and Carlton stores, but carry a completely different stock of cards than any of their commercial counterparts. While suburban grocery stores carry cards for tradition occasions, sellers on Edmonton’s downtown Whyte such as the Chicken Scratch and When Pigs Fly are also stocked with cards for occasions such as same-sex marriages and sex changes. These stores also carry more adult and raunchy humour, representing brands such as Bald Guy Greetings, Trash Talk by Annie, and Hug and Kiss Design. It is perhaps worth noting that raunchy or adult humour cards are no less personal to the customers purchasing them than more sentimental items. Sometimes the best gifts are ones that cause laughter, evoke an old memory, or make light of a situation.

Local artists and crafters have work represented at some independent sellers as well. These cards are clearly labelled to encourage consumers to support artists in their community. Local cards are very rarely seasonal. They usually avoid being tied to a specific occasion except birthdays.

Aside from independent card stores, locally crafted cards can also be bought at farmers’ markets. These handcrafted or printed cards are treated and packaged as specialty items, wrapped in plastic sleeves. Surprisingly, locally crafted cards are not more expensive than many items at commercial stores, as they usually cost four to six dollars. But many people I talked with expected these cards to be pricier than their commercial counterparts, and were quicker to check prices on locally made cards and label them as too expensive while unaware that Hallmark or Carlton products sell comparably.



Stylistically, it is not always easy to tell a commercially printed card from a locally made one. There is no set style for locally crafted cards. Some cards, like the one shown, feel rustic and legitimately homemade, using thick brown paper. Other locally made cards, however, strive instead for the appearance of clean artistry. Similarly, some crafters hand-sign their works, while others use stamps or computer printed labels.


Locally crafted cards are also much less focussed on the print in greeting and occasion cards. These items are frequently blank and more focussed on the visual appeal than the written word.

Locally or commercially made, the actual print in most cards is minimal. Simple and short phrases, rhymes, or quotes from the world famous are the norm. While the words may be sparse, careful design allows them to be as impactful as possible. The placement and font of the print often adds to the visual appeal of the card. Card design usually take advantage of the relationship between the front and inside of a card by beginning phrases on the front...


... and finishing them, often with a punchline, on the inside.


Cards that do use more print are generally focussed on relationships. Unsurprisingly, romance or apology cards may use more print.

Although neither card giver nor receiver usually reads the back of a card, there is usually a small amount of commercial print. The card maker’s brand, website, and print location are usually named. Occasionally, there will also be details about the specific card designer, the process of the card’s development, or an indication of the inside message. Cards from specialty lines also come with an additional slip of paper that gives greater detail about the card maker’s intentions.


Any line of commercially made cards is almost certain to be labelled as environmentally friendly. Some lines advertise their green procedures more than others, but nearly very greeting or occasion card that is not homemade will be labelled on the back as being printed from recycled paper, being crafted through sustainable methods, or being made in association with an environmental group.

Some cards also help global charities. While these cards aren’t in the majority, it isn’t uncommon to find a few items promising to help to build schools or feed impoverished children.


Will charity and recycled paper encourage Edmonton’s residents to keep buying cards? Will cards continue to be thought of as personal, or will they be swallowed by the internet? Whether or not card designers will be able to keep consumers’ business in an increasingly digital market has yet to be seen. Perhaps in the coming years the card stores in Edmonton will be closing their doors and emptying their shelves. But perhaps not. Many people I spoke to still appreciated receiving paper greeting cards more than a note on social media. For now, these traditional of paper item are still part of birthdays, holidays, and happy thoughts between friends.

Last Updated: Feb 5, 2017