Postal Service turns to selling greeting cards to improve sales

A customer looks at greeting cards at the L'Enfant Plaza post office.
A customer looks at greeting cards at the L'Enfant Plaza post office. (Daniel Afzal/u.s. Postal Service.)
By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009

Facing declining mail volume, workforce cuts through employee buyouts and the possible closure of hundreds of post offices, the U.S. Postal Service has a new "get well" remedy: greeting cards.

About 1,500 post offices nationwide started selling Hallmark greeting cards two weeks ago, part of a one-year experiment that may lead all 34,000 postal outlets to sell the cards and offer other goods and services, including banking, insurance and cellphones.

In the District, people can buy greeting cards at the Postal Service's flagship location at L'Enfant Plaza. And 29 sites in Maryland and Virginia sell cards. The 1,500 postal locations join more than 100,000 other retail outlets across the country that sell greeting cards, according to the Greeting Card Association.

About 7 billion cards are sold annually, totaling more than $7.5 billion in sales, the association said. About a third of the greeting cards sent each year are for birthdays, according to GCA statistics.

Of the 7 billion cards, about 4 billion are mailed, accounting for about 2 percent of total mail volume, said Robert F. Bernstock, president of mailing and shipping services for the Postal Service.

"If we can get some energy behind greeting cards, which are incredibly linked to the mail, what better place to sell them and merchandise them than at our post offices?" Bernstock said.

A Postal Service study confirmed that customers think selling greeting cards at post offices is appropriate and that they would buy them there, Bernstock said. The goal is for the cards to help boost postal retail sales by 30 to 40 percent.

A 2006 law allows the Postal Service to sell various mailing and packaging products and other mail-related items, including cards. Officials awarded the one-year deal to Hallmark's Sunrise Greeting card line, with the option to extend the deal for two more years.

"I think we're going into it with a little optimism that we'll be able to expand to a greater number of retail outlets," Bernstock said.

Most European and Asian postal services sell financial or insurance services or prepaid cellphones, said Postmaster General John E. Potter, and U.S. postal officials want Congress to grant permission to explore the possibility of doing something similar.

"I think we're going to have to rationalize," Potter said recently. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out that we're not going to sell the same number of stamps going forward."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company