Sincerely, a 12-person San Francisco start-up, rolled out its greeting… (Sincerely )
Reporting from San Francisco — Most people approach the annual rite of sending holiday cards with all the enthusiasm of filing income tax returns. It's just one more chore on a long to-do list this time of year.
But this holiday season Silicon Valley is taking the wraps off an early Christmas gift that could make sending cards cool again: new smartphone apps that make it faster and easier to create and mail cards to far-flung family and friends.
The card-sending apps from Apple Inc. and other companies work on iPhones, iPads and Android devices in a few minutes for a few bucks: Just download the app, choose a design and a photo, add a sentiment and click "send" to someone in your address book. The cards are mailed for you — no more licking stamps or standing in line at the post office.
Rob Dickson, a 35-year-old father of three in a suburb of Wichita, Kan., says he fires up the Sincerely Ink holiday cards app whenever he can grab a free moment. The other day he polished one off while idling in a McDonald's drive-through.
"Sending holiday cards is a task that tends to make people procrastinate," Dickson said. "Being able to do it anywhere helps get it done."
Matt Brezina, the 30-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur behind the Sincerely Ink app, says the speed and convenience of sending seasonal cheer from a device that is always on and always with you could revive a centuries-old tradition.
Thanksgiving marks the traditional kickoff of card-sending season, when some 2 billion holiday cards stuff mailboxes alongside credit card offers and catalogs. The cards compete for prized square footage on refrigerators and fireplace mantels.
"I don't care how old you are or how technologically advanced you are, everyone appreciates getting something in their mailbox rather than their in-box," said Lisa Crowell, 41, who runs iChick, a digital consulting and photography business in Santa Barbara, and has recommended the new apps to her customers.
The Goliath in the space is Apple. It has an app available on the iPhone and iPod Touch. Apple Cards lets users turn a photo into a greeting card with a personal message that Apple prints and mails for $2.99 in the U.S. and $4.99 overseas. Users are notified on the day the card is to be delivered.
Apple's chief rival is Sincerely, a 12-person San Francisco start-up that rolled out its greeting card app Sincerely Ink last month. The app works on iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches and Android devices. It sends cards for $1.99 in the U.S., Canada and Europe, and $2.99 elsewhere in the world.
Silicon Valley may be on to something. Personalized greetings are some of the fastest-growing products for the greeting card industry. More people are choosing custom cards that they can create and send from their computers, laptops or tablets, a trend that greeting card companies, photo sites and other online services have embraced.
Now this new wave of smartphone apps is looking to untether consumers from their computers. If successful, they could boost sales in an aging industry wrestling with steady declines in sales as people send their greetings through email and social media.
Smartphones loaded with megapixels, faster shutter speeds and an always-on digital connection are used just as often — if not more often — than cameras to capture life's moments. That has led to the lightning-quick rise of young start-ups such as Instagram, which has won over millions of users with a service that lets them share photos and add visual effects from their iPhones, iPod Touches and iPads.
Brezina dreamed up the Sincerely greeting cards app a few years ago while taking pictures with his iPhone 4 in Maui.
"It dawned on me that the iPhone is absolutely the new camera, and being the entrepreneur that I am, I realized there would be business opportunities around that," Brezina said.
"What I thought would be really interesting is printing photos as a postcard or a greeting card. That is something that could be appreciated by every single person on the planet," he said. "You can create a gift for someone and deliver it by mail for the same price that Zynga is selling us fake sheep. But our cards are 100 to 1,000 times more meaningful."
Brezina said he set out to target the explosion of mobile commerce, starting with holiday cards, which are a "huge, huge business."
Americans buy 7 billion greeting cards every year, with Christmas and holiday cards accounting for more than 60% of seasonal sales, according to the Greeting Card Assn., an industry trade group. Market researcher IBISWorld expects the greeting card publishing industry to reach $4.5 billion in 2011 revenue.
Young people buy fewer cards than older adults, so appealing to the younger generation is a crucial challenge for the greeting card industry. Yet the two major greeting card companies — American Greetings and Hallmark, which combined have cornered 82% of the market — have not rolled out mobile apps to create physical cards.