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Sympathy cards can be hard to find because of high demand and supply upsets

Sympathy cards are in short supply at some

Sympathy cards are in short supply at some LI stores, due to high demand and supply chain disruptions. Credit: Newsday/Margaret Corvini

Consumers are buying sympathy and other “care and concern” cards in large quantities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, contributing to shortages in some Long Island stores. 

In the case of at least one manufacturer, sympathy cards have overtaken the perennial No. 1 seller, birthday cards.

Shortages, though, are not just an issue of the demand overtaking the supply of sympathy, encouragement, get well and "thinking of you" cards, industry experts said. It’s also the result of distribution difficulties in the age of social distancing.

Among the challenges contributing to the shortages: stores classifying greeting card deliveries as nonessential, distribution centers shutting down or working at a limited capacity, and publishers working with a skeleton staff.

That, along with more than 110,000 deaths nationally from coronavirus, has painted a paradoxical picture that is both grim and tender: Fewer sympathy cards for the grieving, but also a greater effort to connect in a time of isolation.

“Stores are requesting a lot of sympathy cards and everything is sold out,” said Fern Gimbelman, owner and creative director at New Jersey-based Designer Greetings. “My VP in charge of Long Island said sympathy is sold out everywhere...Long Island is hit big. They’re big card people.”

Added Alan Friedman, president of Buffalo-based Great Arrow Graphics, “If you buy your cards at [certain grocery stores or pharmacies], then you’ve got one place you can go and if you’ve seen some of those stores, their sympathy section is like the Valentine’s Day section on February 14 at 5 p.m. – a mass of red envelopes and nothing else."

Demand for these cards is undoubtedly “up significantly,” said a spokeswoman for the Washington D.C.- based Greeting Card Association, but it’s difficult to quantify because of disrupted supply chains. It all gets murkier because the industry giants – Hallmark and American Greetings – either declined to comment or did not respond to multiple messages. People can also choose to send e-cards, many of which are free and offered both by greeting card providers, like Hallmark, and non-typical sources, like the Nature  Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit. 

In any case, the “pocket,” or the number of cards in one slot, “is selling at hyper-speed,” said Carlos Llanso, CEO of Legacy Publishing Group, a greeting card publisher that sells to over 6,000 retailers. “Greeting cards are traditionally a way for us to communicate, to express our feelings, to connect and address what’s going on in the world…[and] if there was ever a time for it, this is it.”

Though many of the stores that sell Great Arrow Graphics cards have closed temporarily during the pandemic, and production staff had to vacate the office in mid-March, direct-to-customer orders have increased 600% in that time, Friedman said. Much of it is sympathy cards. 

"They've definitely surpassed [birthday cards] for our company during this time,” he said. “Sympathy is the biggest area of concern, I think, but also encouragement, feel better, and thinking of you. [These are] categories that are normally modest sellers but are now much more popular than we’ve ever seen before.”

Distribution difficulties, Llanso noted, may mean different situations for different chains – something that proved apparent in a recent survey of a dozen Long Island supermarkets and pharmacies.  Stop & Shop, for instance, had issues restocking all types of cards due to distribution issues, a spokeswoman said: Suppliers decided at the beginning of the pandemic to temporarily close their distribution centers, but regular shipments of cards were to resume last week. A spokesman for RiteAid, meanwhile, said it continued stocking and didn’t experience a shortage.

“There's a problem in getting them into consumer’s hands," Llanso said. "[Stores may say] I want the bread guy to come in, or I want the lady that’s bringing in the canned goods, but I don’t want the greeting card guy to come in and restock the rack.”

 On a recent Wednesday, that meant a Stop & Shop in Hicksville with a full slate of birthday cards, but nearly-empty shelves of sympathy cards; a Walgreens in Syosset that had no generic sympathy cards -- only religious and family-member specific cards; and, on the other end of the spectrum, full shelves at ShopRite, Rite Aid and CVS. A representative at Walgreens declined to comment.

“The human need to connect, the greeting card is always there for [that],” Llanso said. “At a time when people need to connect with a hey, I’m thinking of you, or celebrate a birthday…that connection that a greeting card helps you strengthen is hard to do now because there are fewer places you can buy them.”

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