CHAMPAIGN — A local greeting-card company has managed to loosen consumers' purse strings by pulling on their heartstrings.
Cardthartic, which has its fulfillment and sales support center in Champaign, has seen sales grow 7 to 8 percent this year, founder Jodee Stevens said.
Sales have been up every year but the recession year of 2009, even though the volume of first-class mail has been dropping precipitously.
Today, Cardthartic has annual revenues of nearly $2 million. Its cards are sold in 2,700 stores in the United States, as well as in Canada.
"We've been very fortunate," said sales director Marguerite "Reet" Rawdin. "We have a niche in the industry. Our cards still do extremely well."
Cardthartic specializes in cards that evoke feelings with short, simple messages.
"There are cards that people have to give — obligatory cards. There are other cards that people go out of their way to send, and that's where our strength is," said Stevens, who grew up in Champaign County and established Cardthartic after a career in public relations.
Stevens, 58, writes messages for the cards in Miami Beach, Fla., where she lives, and matches them up with appropriate images.
"I sit at the water to write our cards," Stevens said. "It's the best place for me to write, for sure."
The cards are printed in Champaign and sent out from Cardthartic's fulfillment center in Interstate Research Park. The company, at 3102 Research Road, C, has about 15 employees, six of them full-time local staff, said general manager Deb Montgomery.
Stevens visits Champaign on a quarterly basis and communicates with the administrative office via Skype the rest of the year.
Cardthartic has about 600 card designs, with its flagship line, Passages, accounting for 369 of those designs.
The company has two other lines — Little Reminders, playful cards that feature kids and animals, and Meanings of Life, which combine artwork of everyday objects with tiny essays that relate them to life.
But the company's bread-and-butter is cards that touch people at emotional times in their lives.
Baby boomers, who grew up with greeting cards, are encountering more of those moments, Stevens said.
"As we age, there's more demand for support-and-encouragement cards and condolence cards," she said. "Our customer is at least 30 and above. We're really focused on serving those needs."
Birthday cards account for 60 percent of cards sold by the greeting-card industry, Stevens said, and the same figure holds true for Cardthartic.
But condolence cards make up an "above average" share of the company's cards, she said.
Cardthartic sells many of its cards in specialty stores, gift shops and high-end groceries. The company, which has been printing pet condolence cards for years, is pushing to get more cards into pet stores, veterinarian offices and grooming businesses.
"If you're not in the pet market, then you have your head in a cave," Stevens said. "It's just so huge."
The company is also trying to place more cards in garden centers and floral businesses, Rawdin said.
Champaign-Urbana merchants who carry Cardthartic cards include: Sun Singer Wines & Spirits, Timothy John Salon, Prairie Gardens, Prairieland Feeds, Jane Addams Book Shop, Sherry's Shear Hair Designs, International Galleries, the Carle and Presence Covenant gift shops and the Promenade gift shop at Krannert Center.
Cardthartic cards sell for $2.95 apiece, and all designs are available as e-cards at the firm's website, http://www.cardthartic.com.
Last year, the business expanded into new products, including magnets, pillows, candles and tote bags. All those products bear images from Cardthartic cards and are only available online.
Rawdin said Cardthartic recently added two cards specifically for gay weddings, one featuring two brides, the other referring to two grooms.
"They took off like wildfire," she said.
As a result of those cards, a store in North Carolina told Cardthartic's independent sales representative that the store didn't want to carry Cardthartic's cards anymore.
The representative suggested the store not chuck the line immediately, but let customers know of the decision to drop the brand. Based on customer response, the store changed its mind and kept the line, Rawdin said.
That's not the only example of a store having an aversion to certain cards.
"Some don't want cards that mention God," Rawdin said. "Some don't want cards that mention beer."
Plus, some Amish stores don't want cards that show skin, she said.
In those cases, the company works to provide a selection of cards acceptable to the merchant, she said.
Stevens said Cardthartic never releases a card design without running it past the company's creative advisory board, made up of independent sales representatives. She said they appreciate the input.
The company also tries to add a personal touch by sending out a handwritten note with each order packed, a move that has proved popular.
Stevens said store owners have told her, "Nobody opens this box but me. I want to read the note from the packers."
After the Sandy Hook school shootings in Newtown, Conn., a merchant in nearby Southbury, Conn., asked Cardthartic for a lot of condolence cards, with plans to give them away.
Cardthartic provided those cards for free, and it did something similar after Prescott, Ariz., firefighters died fighting a forest fire this summer, Rawdin said.
More Cardthartic cards are sold in Massachusetts than any other state, with that state accounting for 20 percent of sales, Rawdin said.
Stevens credits an independent sales representative there for a lot of the success.
"The rep has to believe they can make a lot of money," she said. "You make 20 percent of whatever you sell."
Going forward, Stevens said she hopes to build her creative team and intends to include hand-lettering and calligraphy on upcoming cards.
She added that she has given percentages of company ownership to several top managers, including Montgomery, Rawdin and products manager Ana Behm.
Best-selling cards from Cardthartic
Text from "superstar" cards that outsell others in their category:
Condolence: "When you've loved someone your whole life ... you can be sure their love surrounds you still." (#93265)
Pet condolence: "No matter how or when we lose our best friends .... their love lasts our lifetime." (#13033)
Wedding: "As partners and friends ... may you share each other's dreams, ease each other's burdens, and be in love all the days of your life." (#23066)
Serious illness: "Hope ... is our best medicine." (#93511)
Birthday: "For every birthday wish you make ... may dozens more come true." (#13051)
Anniversary: "Some people ... just seem to belong together." (#53020)
Friendship: "You know how there are some people you're always happy to see? You're one of them for me." (#23035)
A full selection of Cardthartic cards, including verses and imagery, can be found at http://www.cardthartic.com.