This season's greeting: Try to have a happy holiday.
Glum economic tidings are reshaping the more than century-old tradition — and big business — of sending holiday cards.
Although many Americans still have the urge to mail out an address book's worth of year-end greetings, some families are choosing cheaper cards, sending online salutations or trimming their mailing lists. Others are dispatching cards in place of presents.
The printed sentiments are shifting, too, to suit less-than-festive times. American Greetings Corp., the second-largest U.S. card maker, is offering "longer, more heartfelt" messages, while at least one entrepreneur is trying to capitalize on the national mood with cards featuring messages such as "Have a Great Depression and a Subprime New Year."
But some suppliers say business-oriented card sales are up as companies seek a relatively cheap way to reach out to clients, and the industry expects 85 percent of Americans will still send some sort of card this year.
"In recessionary or difficult economic times, people tend to stick closely to the cultural traditions that mean the most to them," said Barbara Miller, a spokeswoman for the Greeting Card Association. "Sending cards to loved ones is one of those traditions."
Holiday cards date to 1843 in Europe and 1875 in the United States, where they now account for about 27 percent of the 7 billion paper cards sold each year, according to the trade group that represents the vast majority of suppliers in the $7.5-billion-a-year U.S. market.
The figures do not include the estimated 500 million electronic cards sent worldwide per year, sometimes for free.
Hallmark Cards Inc., the top U.S. card company, said this week that holiday sales were strong with the busiest stretch yet to come. American Greetings, based in Cleveland, does not release sales information or estimates.
But there are signs the economy could take a toll.
A Consumer Reports poll in October showed 23 percent of respondents planned to cut back on holiday cards this year; the poll was based on a nationally representative sample of 1,001 adults and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
And the U.S. Postal Service expects total holiday-season mail — including cards and other items — to drop for the first time in recent memory, to about 19 billion pieces from 20 billion, spokesman Gerry Kreienkamp said.
Chalk up part of the difference to people like Jessica Smith, a consultant on social networking and marketing aimed at mothers. She and her husband traditionally mail holiday cards to roughly 100 relatives and friends from their home in Olney, Maryland. But after their families agreed to forgo many gifts, spending more than $150 on greetings and postage "seems a little indulgent," said Smith, 32.
Instead, she spent $2.99 on an electronic card with family photos at Smilebox.com. The Redmond, Washington-based company offers designs for free, but the fee offers such advantages as the option of printing the card.
The number of Smilebox cards designed between Dec. 10 and Dec. 17 tripled to 185,000, compared to the same period last year — more growth than the 4-year-old company expected, Chief Executive Andrew Wright said. He attributed at least some of the spurt to senders looking to cut holiday costs.
From an etiquette standpoint, it's perfectly acceptable to skip cards to save money, said Anna Post, a spokeswoman for The Emily Post Institute and a great-great-granddaughter of the manners magnate.
"Failing to send one, one year, doesn't mean you've cut off a relationship with someone," she said.
Not all cost-conscious shoppers are sending pixels instead of paper. Some are choosing less expensive cards or substituting a card for a gift, said Deidre Mize, a spokeswoman for Kansas City, Missouri-based Hallmark.
"It is still something tangible to show you care," she said.
Many businesses continue to send cards for that reason, manufacturers say. Hallmark Business Expressions, the company's corporate segment, and CardsDirect.com, which sells holiday cards to many major companies, both said business was up this year.
Even if some firms are economizing by using leftover cards from last year, many still value the gesture as a way "to reach out and touch your customers for a dollar apiece," CardsDirect.com Chief Executive Ward Mahowald said.
The greetings giants have made cutbacks themselves. American Greetings announced plans to cut 275 of its 18,000 workers and close 25 to 30 stores after second-quarter profits fell 73 percent. Hallmark announced in June it would slash 335 jobs and close three greeting card plants, though the company said the moves were motivated by efficiency, not a dip in demand.
But the year's bad news has been good news for Order of St. Nick, a small greeting card company in Iowa City, Iowa. Holiday orders have quintupled over last year, thanks to a new line of "Depressing Times" cards with wry messages about the global financial meltdown. The most popular: "I made you a Christmas present! But I had to burn it in a trashcan to keep warm."
"I tried to sort of see the silver lining" in the economic gloom, said founder Andrew Shaffer. "I don't think the financial crisis is so bad that people can't afford Christmas cards yet."