Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Little Note on Greeting Cards, Part One

One of the things I decided to take on in the new job is buying cards, together with my bookseller Anne. Before I left Schwartz, our then buyer Catherine emphasized a sage piece of advice: "See if you can do it without a racker."

A racker is when the retailer contracts out to the card company to fill the racks. Hallmark likely racks the Walgreens in your neighborhood, Carlton Cards probably takes care of the Target, and Sunrise is most likely handling the Barnes and Noble that you frequent..."Just for that magazine you don't carry, Dan!"

Over the years, Schwartz used rackers for things like maps (not much of a business left there for us) and Cliff's Notes (and even less there). In other words, things you thought you could sell that you didn't care about messing with yourself. In both cases, I eventually cancelled the programs because we were oversaturated with product. If you're a big company, they may rack you on consignment, but not the small guy--you generally pay up front.

But it turns out that we like cards very much, and it's much more interesting to find cards you like. We're using about a dozen companies, leaving out the key lines that our friend Lynn at Paperwork carries (including some of the best lines like Caspari and Great Arrow). This gives us a very different selection.

I'm not giving much away here because you'd figure it out in a minute if you came to our store, but I'd say our core line is Madison Park. It's either because it's a pretty broad line and several of us like the cards a lot, they turn quickly, no one close to us carries them aggressively, or perhaps because several years ago I went to Seattle and my coworker Sarah's sister gave me a tour of their offices and warehouse. It was very fun and I feel connected somehow.
We find cards in lots of different ways. We have sales reps, just like for books. It's the easiest way to learn about product; the downside is that sometimes the lines will be in too many nearby shops. I picked up a few lines at the Chicago gift show from a rep that has the Milwaukee territory but doesnn't make it up here much. When I travel, I look for interesting lines, buy a card, and try to bring it in for our store.

I thought the card was dead; I have sent my share of ecards myself. I'm finding that like many other things, it's an age thing. Then there are certain types of cards ("sympathy" for sure, also "thank you") where an ecard doesn't show enough effort. The birch tree card at left has proven to be quite popular as a sympathy card--something different from the flower and the sunset, I guess. And finally, when you're buying a gift, it makes sense to have the card with it, as opposed to coming separately via email. And finally, if you subscribe to an email service, you run out of good options pretty quickly.

So card sales turn out to be tracking okay, not quite what we were doing before percentagewise, but hardly plummetting. We're getting our fair share of compliments and nary a complaint. For some reason, a few of us get a real thrill when someone comes up with a pile of them to buy.

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