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Change The Cards

One of the most important ways that people learn about their culture and their land is through art. As things are now, people don't see enough good local, regional or even national art to reflect or inform their world as it should. In no small part, this situation is due to the concentration of ownership in our creative industries, the popular media and the marketplace. As distribution channels are increasingly consolidated and locked in, to maximize profits from the delivery of 'content', excellent local artwork is pushed to the margins. There are long running efforts in every creative industry to address this issue; to broaden the range of choices available in their market. The following is about the effort to diversify and increase Canadian content in the Canadian card market

The boring sameness of the card markets in Canada, Australia and the United States has them shuffling along at about half the rate of the more dynamic United Kingdom market. Two huge companies, Hallmark Cards and American Greetings, control over 75% of these three markets by using their economic clout to secure exclusive contracts with major retail chains. They've achieved a level of market dominance unheard of in the other creative industries, marginalizing some 3000 publishers, including over 200 in Canada.

More than the economy suffers. This duopoly restricts everyone's choices, keeping a great variety of creative output from the audience it deserves; for whom it could be conveying universal themes while reflecting their unique land and culture.

For insight into the cultural significance of greeting cards, an overview of the card industry and some background on the efforts (which were begun back in 1999) to restore diversity and vitality to the Canadian card market, I invite you to read
The Write Stuff newsletter.
It's a pdf, now somewhat dated, but still informative.

Bite Back

Four possible ways to revitalize these markets, and make customers happier:

1. Hallmark and American Greetings decide to foster a market where less can be more.

Perhaps not as farfetched as it might seem. Their experience in the thriving UK industry, where they have a smaller market share that generates about the same sales per capita as here, should demonstrate to them the benefits of a diverse, competitive market: more engaged customers and creative publishers to partner with.

Despite the cheekiness of the graphic above, which was inspired by a pie chart, not by a belligerent attitude, this is about making things better, not making enemies. Even monolithic corporations have people in them who can see that a stronger market is better for them, too; that making a little room for some healthy competition will stimulate sales, which is a good thing. The fact that there are some cards in their stores from other publishers can be seen as a good sign.

2. The major retail chains stop signing anticompetitive exclusive contracts.

The major retail chains, for whom cards are a tiny fraction of their business, come to realize: a) that they account for the lion's share of the market, b) that the market can be grown to about twice the size it is, and c) that they can make this happen by changing their buying practices.

Because the people who run these companies can't act on information they don't have, I've condensed onto one page the salient facts about the card industry and how the retail chains can transform it. It has the catchy title, Increasing Shelf Space for Canadian Cards Can Double Greeting Card Sales and you can download a pdf of it by clicking the link. I find that buyers are interested in this information but, it's up against decades of buying habits, and the millions that are put on the table at contract time.

3. Customers speak up and the retailers listen.

Years ago, when I was losing space in stores where both the customers and the local management where very happy with our cards, I initiated a letter writing campaign to let head office know how much people loved the cards. I soon learned that many of my supporters were indeed writing but they were so upset that they were lashing out at the company as much or more than asking them to reconsider carrying a product that they loved. This was not really helpful.

Large companies do listen to reasonable feedback from their customers. If you would like to see a wider selection of greeting cards available in the drug and grocery stores where you shop, write a letter to let them know. It can't hurt. Just remember, the goal is to win friends and influence people, not get their backs up.

4. The government steps in to restore competition to the industry.

In Canada, like in most countries, there are regulations to protect and restore competition in the marketplace. We filed an Application for Inquiry with the Competition Bureau and they did look into the matter.

Although the Competition Act gives a Competition Tribunal the power to require of companies that hold a monopoly or duopoly whatever is necessary to protect or restore competition to a market, the Tribunal decided that because the harm has already been done to the market, no harm is now being done. In effect, because someone took over your house, they are no longer taking over your house so it's OK if they live in it. A curious ruling which, if I had the time and money, I would be tempted to challenge.

The Heritage Ministry sat on their hands, waiting to see what the Competition Bureau would do, so it's probably best not to hold our breath waiting for government to take action on this. That said, having the Heritage Ministry on side while bringing the growth through diversity and Canadian content argument to the retail chains could be helpful and is probably worth talking to them about.

International Action

The domination of the card market by Hallmark Cards and American Greetings is an international problem.

In Canada these two giants have almost 75% of the market, in Australia about 75% and in the US, 83%. In the UK, they have less than 40%, now, but they are buying up local publishers. People in the UK would be well advised to heed the grim lessons from the other countries, and take steps to stop or reverse this encroachment.

If anyone in Australia, New Zealand, the USA or the UK would like to discuss steps that they might take to begin to restore fair competition and diversity in their card market, I would be glad to hear from you. Mind those time zones–I'm in British Columbia, Canada. No 3:00 am phone calls, please.

Lastly, there's nothing, apart from my unilingualism, keeping me from including other countries. I suspect this is not just an English (and French, in Canada) concern.

You can get in touch at:

If you crave historic details, here are links dating to this effort's beginning in 1999.

The Application for Inquiry
Taking the issue to the Canadian Competition Bureau.

The Report On The Inquiry
The Competition Tribunal's judgement, and my response to it.
Plus a brief update on how things stand now.

The Ministry of Canadian Heritage
The letter to the Minister.

The Retail Chain Stores
The letter to the heads of Canada's 40 biggest drug, grocery and department stores.

Press Coverage
A sampling of the press coverage that helped bring this issue to the attention of the Competition Bureau.

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