Slow and steady, still in the race

Jul 22, 2012, 07:43 IST | Phorum Dalal

When was the last time you picked up a greeting card for Diwali? You may believe that the era of cards is obsolete in an IM-happy world in which people wish each other on Facebook, but card manufacturers don't think so. Why else would a 33 year-old card company go in for an image makeover as it did earlier this year? Phorum Dalal takes a closer look at the changing moods of the 'social expressions' industry

Twenty one year-old Stacy Fernandes loves the smell of paper, especially when it comes in the form of a red or pink envelope, which carries a heartfelt greeting card on her birthday, a festival, or Valentine’s Day. “Greeting cards are the customary way to send your love, congratulatory wishes and to keep in touch with loved ones. When you personally give or post a card, the effort you’ve taken to select the perfect words and design show,” says the Marine Lines resident, who works as a communications executive.

Stacy Fernandes, a PR executive, loves to buy cards for special occasions. She scours through the greeting cards collection at Archies Gallery, Santacruz. Pic/Atul Kamble

Anil Moolchandani, founder, Archies Ltd, a company that used to be synonymous with greeting cards till the late ’90s, will not deny that Fernandes is in the minority today. Why then, after 33 years, did his company, considered by many as a dinosaur in the age of digital expressions, launch a new logo, this April? “It was a change pending for a long time. We carried out independent surveys and the response we got to the new logo was great. Archies is all about emotions, and with this logo, we want to reach out to a whole new generation of buyers,” he says.

Quality trumps cheesy
That includes youngsters aged between 10 and 25, and corporates, who buy what Moolchandani calls “value cards”. Priced higher (between Rs 30 and Rs 150), they are printed on more expensive paper, use sophisticated printing technology, and feature glossy, error-free text and pictures. The company tied up with NGO CRY in 2000, while it already has had a tie up with Helpage India since 1988. Last year, it tied up with Unicef. “These are the cards that corporates buy in bulk for their clients and business partners, and they have to be perfect,” he explains.

Agreeing with him is Gautam Thadhani — director of Wilson Greetings, a Mumbai-based company — who stepped into his father and grandfather’s business in 2005, when the industry was in the throes of a turmoil post the Internet revolution that was threatening to put card companies out of business.
“Today, buyers are ready to pay a higher price for a good product. We will launch a friendship day book (Rs 180), along with cards, this Friendship Day. The purchase pattern has changed. People buy greeting cards for others, so they will not compromise on quality. They believe that the card they present reflects their image,” says the 29 year-old MBA graduate from Cardiff university, UK, who ventured into gifts in 2007.

The new buyer
The buyer has changed completely, feels Amit Shah, CEO, Monarch Greetings, an 80 year-old card company on Abdul Rahman Street. “In 2000, all kinds of manufacturers could survive in the market, with even sub-standard products. Today, buyers don’t mind paying a high price, but they will walk out if they don’t like what they see,” he explains. Their hot-selling cards are those centred on the theme of — predictably — love and friendship, and priced between Rs 30 and Rs 150. “The ones between Rs 100 and Rs 150 are sold out first,” says Shah, who believes the market is on its way to becoming a bit more organised. As times have changed, the company has also made an attempt to reinvent itself for customers.

We realised that greeting cards and gifts go together. So we decided to be a one stop shop for cards, social stationery and gifts — Amit Shah CEO, Monarch Greetings. Pics/Sunil Tiwari

“Since 2011, we have been tying up with college fests, where we can come face to face with our customers, and get feedback,” says Shah, who has tied up with Malhar, the St Xavier’s College festival, this year. Thadhani says, “I walked into the industry when SMS and email culture had pushed the paper greeting card concept aside. But in 2008-2009, buyers began to realise that there was no true alternative to a greeting card that you could touch, feel and store.” Today, retailers across India who stock cards made by Wilson Greetings sell an average of 10 to 15 cards per annum per buyer.

SMS trumps cards
Today, India has approximately 20 greeting card manufacturers. Most of them have also ventured into sourcing and manufacturing gifting articles. “We realised that greeting cards and gifts go together. So we decided to be a one-stop shop for cards, social stationery and gifts,” says Shah. That’s a welcome recovery from a time when it seemed like the technology boom would kill all semblance of a greeting card industry. In the year 2000, most greeting card manufacturers, 50 per cent of whose revenue depended on the production of seasonal cards — Diwali, Christmas and New Year — were staring at huge losses.

Archies, like all other companies, lost volume and, in a bid to revive a flagging business, started stocking and manufacturing a wide range of gift articles as well. “By this time, we had our own design studio for greetings and gift articles. We needed to create a reason for people to walk into a card store. This gave rise to Rakhi, Mother’s day, Friendship and Valentine’s Day cards in early 2000. The simple process of sending an SMS or email was decreasing our bulk production. The market went through its most testing phase. Production rates dwindled and many smaller units were shuttered,” he recalls.

It began with Abba
But Archies survived, the weight of history behind it. In 1979, Moolchandani, who was then working in his family’s saree shop — Shobha — at Kamla Nagar, the university hub in Delhi, asked a friend to get him a poster of the music band ABBA from the US, which he then stuck on the door of their shop. “At first, it was a trickle, but then flocks of students walked in to ask whether it was for sale,” reminisces joint managing director, Pramod Arora. This inspired Moolchandani to call for more posters that he could sell to college students. The posters were a rage. He then started printing pictures of pop stars, Bollywood actors, landscapes, babies and quotations. Rack your brain a little and you’ll recall a few popular one like ‘The road to a friend’s house is never long’.

Today, buyers are ready to pay the price for a good product. The purchase pattern has changed. People buy greeting cards for others, so they will not compromise on quality. They believe that the card they present reflects their image — Gautam Thadhani Director, Wilson Greetings

“Anil was also fond of English pop songs, and in those days, catching the correct lyrics was always a problem. He then ventured into printing songbooks for pop stars such as Abba, Michael Jackson, George Michael and Madonna. He started selling them off counters at stationery and medical stores,” says Arora, excitedly. In 1980 he printed his first lot of greeting cards, which were miniatures of the hot-selling posters. “One thing led to another. The cards were then created for occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries and Diwali, Christmas and New Year. At this point, they were still being sold off counters, serving as a side business for shop various owners,” says Arora.

A card for everyone
Having seen the potential of the business, on January 26 that year, the company conducted an exhibition — The Great Archies Explosion. “It was a task to control the crowd. They loved what they saw and asked where it would be available. We realised that we needed a greeting card and gifts store, which we set up in Kamla Nagar on Bungalow Road in 1987,” says Arora. In 1989, they set up one more shop at South extension followed by five stores in Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Delhi in 1989. In 1999, a lot of international brands, including Reebok, Benetton and Adidas, launched in India and offered franchises.

“We started having a tough time because people didn’t see potential in our business and didn’t want to be our franchisees,” says Arora.  It was after they set up their first store in Ansal Plaza, Delhi, in 1999, that developers started approached them to book spaces. “Some of the franchise owners saw our shops and realised that they were doing very well. Since then, we have 225 company-run stores across the country.”

New, improved Akshay
That’s good news for 31 year-old Bhakti Joshi, a homemaker from Malad (W), who misses the greeting card phenomenon. She recalls how cards were a way of expressing every emotion from congratulating a friend on the birth of a baby, or sending a mushy card for no particular reason. “Cards will remain, for me, the best way to say I care. Knowing how much I love them, my five year-old daughter dragged my husband to a store and bought me a card on my birthday last November. It sits on my bedside, and brings a smile to my face every time I see it,” she smiles.

Joshi’s “heart broke” when, last month, her mom threw away her 150-strong collection of postcards, photos and posters of actor Akshay Kumar, meticulously collected over 10 years, from Archies gallery at Vile Parle (W), but she may have a second chance yet. “When the technology boom almost put us out of business, a lot changed for the industry — in a good way. Manufacturers started focusing on quality over quantity, and the final product improved tremendously. Today, the industry, though limited, has matured, and growth is difficult but not unachievable. Maintain high standards and stay in touch with the lingo of the times,” feels Thadhani. There may be hope for newer, better-shot pictures of Akshay, then.

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