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The industry is investing in alternative greetings as a means to jump-start a mature, flat market and convert non-card senders.All three players are expanding or creating new alternative lines. Over the last decade, the alternative category has grown to represent from 10% of all greeting cards to between 30% and 40%, according to industry estimates.Cincinnati-based Gibson Greetings' strategy has been

The industry is investing in alternative greetings as a means to jump-start a mature, flat market and convert non-card senders.

All three players are expanding or creating new alternative lines. Over the last decade, the alternative category has grown to represent from 10% of all greeting cards to between 30% and 40%, according to industry estimates.

Cincinnati-based Gibson Greetings' strategy has been to break the boundaries of traditional exclusivity contracts with retailers. Last year it introduced "Relativity" as part of that strategy. The alternative turnkey program, now in 775 stores, combines dozens of popular alternative card brands from a variety of manufacturers distributed through a single source. Many of these brands, such as Avanti, Leanin Tree and Anne Geddes, were sold mostly in specialty shops and not in supermarkets.

According to George White, general manager of Bullseye Productions, a division of Gibson, the growth strategy to boost sales is working. In four audited test markets involving more than 100 stores, overall greeting-card sales increased more than 20% since the installation of "Relativity," he said.

In March, Cleveland-based American Greetings rolled out "intuitions," an alternative line consisting of cards positioned as "not your mother's greeting cards." The line reflects a personal style that is distinctive through its photography. "With 'intuitions' we are bringing consumers a totally new approach to greeting cards," said Steve Laserson, American Greetings executive director for everyday cards.

In test markets, the line appealed to all generations, including males, who are not frequent card purchasers. The majority of cards were selected, sent and received by 18- to 44-year-olds, which trends much younger than the typical card senders. Females, age 54 to 60, purchase between 80% and 90% of the greeting cards sold. "There is no question alternatives have grown in importance, and there is more interest in these cards," said John Stahl, director of nonfood at Genuardi's Family Markets, Norristown, Pa.

Cub Foods Georgia division, Lithia Springs, Ga., has adjusted its racks to receive new alternative cards from Gibson, said Ray Wallace, nonfood director. Its card departments range in size from 54 feet to 280 feet. "Alternative cards like 'Buzz Cuts,' [a Gibson line targeted to those in their 20s], are doing real well," said Wallace.

"With alternatives, hopefully we will be gaining some of the card-shop business. In the past, we haven't carried that broad a line of alternatives, and the card shops have," commented Tom Bolinger, vice president of sales and marketing at J.C. Groub, Seymour, Ind.

While most agree alternatives are designed to shake up the market, few can come up with a definitive definition for alternative cards.

"It's easier to describe what it's not," said Gibson's White. "It's not pastel and rhyme. The cards feature primary colors. They are bolder with brighter graphics and contain more conversational editorial."

Joan Orth, vice president and senior creative products designer for Hallmark Cards, Kansas City, Mo., describes alternatives simply. "It's an attitude," she stated. "It's a mix of soft and pretty as well as edgy and harsh. We focus in on design trends such as seen in popular photography magazines and in advertising."

Hallmark's main alternative line for mass-market retailers is "Fresh Air," which it introduced about three years ago. A number of new lines are featured in the supplier's "Flex Alternatives" program through its Expressions From Hallmark offering. New additions to the program include Mary Hamilton, a Hallmark artist noted for her bears; Marjolein Bastin, a Dutch nature artist; and ethnic Jewish and Spanish lines. Hallmark's purchase last year of Bloomington, Ind.-based InterArt, an alternative manufacturer and supplier, also indicates the company's future direction with the alternative category.

What these new lines hopefully mean for retailers are incremental card sales, which suppliers say are just what the industry needs. "If we can tap into the incremental-purchase mode and we are getting someone who doesn't buy a card or who buys an additional one, that all bodes well for retailers," said Don Kusek, American Greetings' product manager for alternative cards.

But, as retailers know, much of what sells in their stores depends on the demographics of their local marketing area. Not surprisingly, Bob Pikarsky, general merchandise category manager for Grand Union, Wayne, N.J., said the best movement for alternative cards has been in upscale areas.

"Alternative cards are becoming more and more popular, but the emphasis in our Ambassador Cards sections is still on traditional cards, which is where our movement still is," Pikarsky added.

Suppliers, however, continue to broaden the alternative-card spectrum by reaching out to diverse segments and lifestyles, stages and phases. "Alternative cards have grown in importance by reflecting different lifestyles, compared to more traditional products," commented Bolinger of J.C. Groub.

One particular segment of importance is ethnic diversity. Most Cub Foods units in metro Atlanta cater to African-American shoppers, who comprise 65% of the customer base in those stores, Wallace pointed out. "What we've done is try and tailor the card mix to our ethnic customers, and also look at more humorous cards for adults," he said.

"As we added alternative ethnic cards, our card sales have always picked up. We also have a tremendous Spanish-speaking minority in Atlanta, which is growing daily. And as we add the Spanish cards we find we're picking up a broader customer base for those products," Wallace stated.

A challenge in coping with the many alternative lines entering the market is to find the space to merchandise them. The solution for many retailers with limited space or for those who may be limited by exclusive contracts is to merchandise secondary lines outside the main department aisle. Wallace is merchandising Hallmark's "Mahogany" cards on an 8-foot freestanding rack near the main section.

"We don't have as much alternative space as we would like for future placement. We're planning more space for alternatives. This would come by using some space in everyday cards in our American Greetings and Ambassador Cards' sections," said Bolinger.

The suppliers also help retailers with placement issues by offering flexible merchandising programs. For example, American Greetings has a spinner program to outpost five of its top alternative lines within a small footprint. The selection of cards for individual stores is made through demographic analysis.

"In our newer stores, we're using a 12-foot wave fixture to break out alternative cards and give them a different presentation," said Grand Union's Pikarsky. "The more exposure you can give to alternative cards, the better the sales."

Alternative cards will continue to be a key driver for the industry going into the 21st century. As Kusek of American Greetings stated, "Today's alternative cards is the next step." He views the transition from everyday cards to alternatives as an evolutionary process. Those baby boomers who do not want to send the cards their mothers sent will soon hit the 55- to 60-year-old age bracket en masse. The challenge, according to Kusek, will be to key in on the next trend, market segment and personal communication.