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Say Hello to Latest in Greeting Cards : Shoppers Go High-Tech, Writing Their Own Messages at Kiosks

December 08, 1992|GEORGE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's more high technology in the cards for consumers greeting cards, that is.

Greeting card companies are increasingly setting up computer-equipped booths known as kiosks, providing more consumers with the opportunity to create personalized Yuletide messages.

"I want to create a Christmas card for a friend because my friends are really impressed when they see their name on a card," said Raquel Reynolds, a 15-year-old Los Angeles resident, while comparing kiosk operations at two card shops at the Fox Hills Mall in Culver City.

"I like it because it looks professional even though it's personalized," said Lynda Plant, an English teacher at Dorsey High School, as she created a message for a "world-class" friend at a Fox Hills Mall kiosk.

The personalized card is not new. Card shops and stationery stores have, upon request, offered individualized cards for years. And a number of firms have offered personalized cards for catalogue purchases of a minimum of 25 cards.

However, the computerized greeting-card-producing kiosk is a fairly new approach to the personalized card business. And the industry is getting the message--there are big bucks in individualized greetings during the Christmas season.

Sales of personalized Christmas cards have risen 20% since 1986, accounting for sales of about $200 million in 1991. The greeting card industry's total sales were $5 billion that year.

The two giants of the business--St. Louis, Mo.-based Hallmark Cards and Cleveland-based American Greetings Corp.--are rapidly expanding their computer kiosk system. Both companies charge $3.50 for a personalized card.

Small and medium-sized greeting card companies are also developing kiosks or software that generate personalized cards.

For example, Boston-based Inscribe Pop Inc. is competing on the East Coast with its "Print a Little Message" kiosks--which will write limericks or free verse poetry when told the occasion, the intended's name and two adjectives describing that person.

And then there's Epyx Inc., a Redwood City computer software developer that understands the driving force behind the greeting card industry--the human urge to commemorate holidays and occasions.

Some greeting card executives demur when it is suggested that their industry is responsible for creating some of the nation's newer holidays in order to sell cards for those occasions. Some will--tongue in cheek--suggest that florists are actually responsible for creating holidays.

However, Epyx Chief Executive Bill Lanphear is not shy about his role in promoting new special days. Epyx produces a software program for IBM-compatible computers that allows consumers to create personalized greeting cards, and Lanphear wants consumers to be aware of the many low-profile holidays and special occasions.

"There are cards for divorces, cards for new relationships and cards for the anniversary of the first manned balloon flight," Lanphear said. "There are cards for good weather and bad weather. There are cards for setting the clock one hour ahead or one hour behind, cards for World Series bets, cards for elections, and diet cards, and going-to-the-dentist cards."

At personalized card kiosks, consumers are given a choice of drawings or images for various occasions, although some kiosks allow shoppers to pen their own artwork. Shoppers are given a selection of messages, or they can write their own, or they may be given part of a message and allowed to fill in the balance with their own words.

Sometimes those words aren't very nice. In fact, some customers have tried to create messages that include words that some consider profane, said Kelley Frazer, a sales clerk at the King's Hallmark shop at Fox Hills Mall.

"Some are trying to be funny by using these words," Frazer said. "Some are doing it in a meaner spirit."

Whether it's the Christmas spirit or a less noble one, shoppers who try to use words that some consider obscene will be frustrated if they include such language at Hallmark's "Personalize It" kiosks. Such words are not in the machine's vocabulary and will not print out if typed onto the computer screen. "Hallmark's name is on the back of each card and we have to protect the image of the company," said Sherry Timbrook, a Hallmark spokeswoman.

Although customers do not have complete creative freedom, Timbrook said sales of Hallmark personalized cards exceed the company's expectations. Hallmark currently has 900 kiosks in 26 states but plans to have about 1,900 computerized outlets in 50 states by next June.

"Personalized cards are filling a niche," she said. "Today, consumers are looking for individuality in the products they buy. You can attract buyers if you make them feel unique and special."

Meanwhile, American Greetings, which has 1,000 kiosks in 23 states, plans to have 2,500 outlets nationwide by mid-1993. Based on sales last month at its "CreataCard" kiosks, American Greetings projects $35 million in sales over the 12-month period that ends in November, 1993.

"A lot of younger shoppers are opting for the (personalized) cards because they grew up in the computer age and are familiar and comfortable with computers," said Rhonda Rybka, a spokeswoman for the Cleveland-based American Greetings. "Industry-wide, women purchase about 90% of all (non-personalized) greeting cards. But men account for about 35% of the purchases of personalized cards."

Rybka said company research shows that many men use kiosks because they tend to be attracted to new technology.

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