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For some retailers the value of the message is greater than the price on the back of the greeting card. That is often the case in merchandising ethnic greeting cards, a growing and important segment.Given the right demographics, retailers report ethnic greeting cards reinforces store loyalty, which in turn increases traffic and sales in all departments.Chicago-based Fairplay Finer Foods demonstrates

For some retailers the value of the message is greater than the price on the back of the greeting card. That is often the case in merchandising ethnic greeting cards, a growing and important segment.

Given the right demographics, retailers report ethnic greeting cards reinforces store loyalty, which in turn increases traffic and sales in all departments.

Chicago-based Fairplay Finer Foods demonstrates the direction many retailers are going in reaching out to ethnic markets. It devotes 10% of its card run to a basic set of African-American and Hispanic cards, according to Michael Glaubke, director for health and beauty care and general merchandise. The chain, which has seven stores in Chicago and the outlying suburbs, has been selling ethnic cards from Cleveland-based American Greetings for about a year.

"We cater to a lot of African-Americans. In our company we have mostly inner-city stores, so we give the customer what they want," said Glaubke. Glaubke, who saw a spike in ethnic card sales during Black History Month, also reports selling an increasing number of Hispanic cards. "Within the past year in one location it has increased greatly," said Glaubke.

African-American birthday cards is one of the most popular captions at Butler, Pa.-based Harold Friedman, Inc., which carries cards from Gibson Greetings, Cincinnati. Drug and general merchandise manager Bob Patton also said he is starting to see growth in Hispanic cards, although it's not yet a strong trend at the seven-store retailer.

Even at a chain that targets an upper income, higher demographic profile such as Sacramento, Calif.-based Raley's supermarkets, about 25% of the chain's stores carry ethnic cards targeted to Hispanic, African-American and Jewish consumers. In those stores, about three feet, or 5%, of the Ambassador card run is dedicated to ethnic cards, said Bill Roatch, buyer/merchandiser for greeting cards, gifts, baby, general merchandise and HBC.

For all retailers, the percentage devoted to ethnic products is certain to increase in coming years. A look at the numbers shows why: African-Americans command $469 billion -- and Hispanics $348 billion -- in consumer spending power, according to Coral Gables, Fla.-based Market Segments Group. The African-American population is growing at a rate of 12%, and the Hispanic population (which Hallmark estimates at 30.5 million) is growing four to five times faster than the growth rate of the general population.

The incentive for selling ethnic greeting cards grows every year, just like the population. Signing indicating African-American or Hispanic cards is probably the most effective way to show that a retailer is sensitive to the ethnic shopper. Within these growing ethnic markets, holidays and celebrations unique to specific ethnic groups magnify the effect of a year-round ethnic card offering.

New sublines also turn up the message. American Greetings just introduced In Rhythm, a new 35-stock-keeping unit line targeted for woman-to-woman giving. The line was introduced with power panels for African History Month in February and is now a regular line for the company. "The artwork and verse speak to African-American women," said Denise Eaddy, program administrator for alternative cards for American Greetings. The messages of the line range from humor to affirmation. "It shows women in every day situations. Our research showed that was what women wanted."

American Greetings' other African-American lines are Baobab, an everyday line with African-American motifs, and Soul Kids. The latter is a romantic card line featuring tinted black and white photos of children, in a nostalgic style evoking an earlier time.

From Hallmark, Kansas City, Mo., two new alternative lines (as part of Hallmark's Mahogany African-American line) will be available this summer for retailers who carry Ambassador and Expressions From Hallmark. "Certainly, Lord!" highlights African-American spirituality, while the 28-sku "Legends of Greatness" series features sepia-colored cards commemorating notable African-Americans, each with a short biography and a detachable bookmark.

The "Legends" series, developed in partnership with the U.S. Postal Service, is available through December 2000. Hallmark's research shows that African-Americans account for about 9% of all greeting card purchases (an estimated $610 million). The African-American greeting card industry alone is estimated to be $110 million and growing.

Gibson Greetings expanded its African-American line last year to a four-foot, high-density offering. [At press time, American Greetings and Gibson were in the regulatory-approval phase of a proposed acquisition by American Greetings]. The line (which does not have a separate name) is merchandised in two ways -- as a stand-alone section or integrated into an everyday section with title finders.

"Some stores do better with it separated, some do better with it integrated," explained George White, manager of Gibson Greetings. Just why a store does better one way or the other isn't clear, said White, but Gibson's rule of thumb is that when African-Americans are 15% or more of the store's market, the cards are usually displayed in their own section in the card run.

Retailers recognize the power of targeting diverse cultural markets -- it's no surprise that Albertson's sponsors Spanish-language television simulcasts in certain markets.

In December, Hallmark launched Hallmark en Espanol. Most of the line, which has more than 300 new designs, are written in Spanish and are appropriate for the broad range of Hispanic cultures, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central and South American. The designs reflect Hispanic traditions, skin tones and language.

A recent subline from Hallmark, "Oiste Mi Chiste?" (Heard My Joke?) targets third and fourth generation Hispanics.

Hallmark research shows that more than 70% of Hispanic consumers say it is important for card designs to show people who look like them and their families. Language, of course, is a key feature of Hispanic cards. The card suppliers all provide title-finder cards in Spanish.

"We realize that there is a need for a diverse product offering to mirror the various U.S. Hispanic groups, so we're focusing on providing an offering that appeals to a broad range of Hispanic consumers," said Yolanda Villegas, Hallmark marketing strategist Ethnic Business Center.