STATE OF THE ART

Say good-bye to sappy sunsets and hello to toxic waste, AIDS, and bad-hair days. Though their definition is elusive, so-called alternative greeting cards are beginning to elbow aside their more staid and traditional counterparts in the $5.3-billion retail card market. With 85% of sales locked up by the industry's Big Three (Hallmark Cards, American Greetings, and Gibson Greetings), more than 1,000 smaller publishers are waging a battle of creativity for the remaining 15%. As industry analyst E. Gray Glass notes, "One major complaint we heard at the New York Stationery Show, both from card and gift shops and from major retailers, is that the industry leaders' product lines have become boring." Steve Schneider, associate editor of Greetings Magazine, in New York City, calls alternative cards a "burgeoning sector of the industry" but says that term is also becoming increasingly meaningless. "Sending the sugary-sweet card with hearts and flowers would be seen to be as alternative as any of the others," he observes. "People don't speak in those terms anymore."

Some start-ups that are speaking a more contemporary language:

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Send Inc.
Send Inc. -- one of a small number of African American -- owned U.S. greeting-card companies -- grew out of Mark Norris's frustration with the quality and variety of greeting cards available to ethnic consumers. After considerable market research, Norris launched Send as a separate division of his graphic-design firm, Urban Design, in Philadelphia. He introduced Send's cards -- which depict a variety of races -- at the National Stationery Show in 1992. Today Norris reports that the cards are sold in card shops, upscale retailers, and museums on four continents. He expects them to generate 1994 revenues of $400,000 or more. And Send has expanded its focus to include the general market.

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Cardthartic
"Because the mainstream has to be all things to all people, we feel that leaves a lot of people out," says Jodee Stevens. Stevens is president of Cardthartic, a Chicago start-up that is catering to the gay and lesbian market. Cardthartic's first line of cards addresses occasions like adoptions by same-sex couples or the loss of a loved one due to AIDS, topics that have been taboo for the majority of card publishers. Launched in 1992 with $90,000 in personal funds, Cardthartic posted first-year revenues of less than $100,000. Stevens expects the company to break even within two to three years.

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P.E.R.F.E.C.T. Images
"We're not FemiNazis; we never intend to insult or alienate any segment of the population," says Lori Levine. Last June Levine and Patti Frank cofounded P.E.R.F.E.C.T. Images, a Basking Ridge, N.J., start-up with a line of cards that puts a humorous spin on the lifestyles of the modern female. The cards showcase a team of superheroines who tackle issues like relationships, work, shopping, and parenthood. Levine and Frank believe their company is well positioned, given that women purchase 90% of all greeting cards. The founders project that the company's 1994 revenues will reach $250,000. -- Alessandra Bianchi

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