But it has not been successful. It has in recent years laid off some longtime employees, and some stores are closing. The store closures are particularly troublesome because they are locally owned, and for generations have held together Main Streets and neighborhood shopping centers.
In thinking about what is wrong, I did not have a clear answer as to why the company is off-track. Thoughts:
- Fashion cannot be blamed. A card is still an essential thing for birthdays and Christmas and the like. Realistically, you don’t have to think with a greeting card; it does the thinking for you. Nor can I blame the struggles of Hallmark on the recession; after all the company has been through many. Indeed, you could argue that a card and an inexpensive gift should be more popular in lean times, as all can afford it.
- Gift cards rule: The ideal gift for a teen (or any child) is a gift card, and to give one of those, you need to put it in a card.
- I could not blame the struggles on Hallmark not being hip. Hallmark has tried to be hip of late, without being edgy. Nevertheless, Shoebox Greetings seem to be quite clever, and it does not confuse with the main Hallmark brand.
- The television arm of Hallmark seems rather vibrant. While I don’t recall seeing a memorable Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie recently, their cable channel is plenty watchable, and is doing wholesome, positive series like the western drama Love Begins and Time After Time, which stars Richard Thomas of The Waltons fame.
So what is wrong? I found the answer while looking at an old Hallmark book, first published in 1962.
It was the book Flowers of the Holy Land by Bertha Spafford Vester. Vester was not only an artist, but an amazing American expatriate in Palestine, a dynamo who built hospitals, set up food kitchens and even ran a school for Arabs. She was the daughter of Horatio Spafford, whose great tearful hymn, It is Well With My Soul, was written after Bertha’s sisters were all killed in the 1873 sinking of a ship in the Atlantic. (Christian singer Chris Rice does a spectacular version.)
The smallish book includes some three dozen watercolors of Holy Land flowers painted by Vester, as well as an introduction of Vester by Lowell Thomas and Norman Vincent Peale, the Tom Brokaw and Oprah of their era.
The typography is classic, tasteful and elegant, and the print reproductions are so good they might be the sort of pages that are torn out and sold by prints dealers for high prices.
Each flower has a description; the description of the Palestine Cornflower is perfect:
The Palestine cornflower is similar to the English and American cornflower, or bachelor’s button. Thistles and thorns are mentioned in Genesis as part of God’s punishment of Adam. They grow in such enormous numbers as to take possession of whole fields in the Holy Land.
I think of this book, and then I think of the Peanuts gifts and ornaments in a Hallmark store today. Not that there is anything wrong with Peanuts gifts, but they are definitely pop culture. The Spafford book, however, is a classic, and would be a fitting feature of any coffee table or library. But even with its highbrow appeal, it is also something ANYONE would give at Easter or Christmas or anytime, a true mass market item.
Certainly, retailers give their consumers what they want, and for years, consumers have wanted Peanuts ornaments. But for me, these days, I think Americans have higher aspirations, and tchotchkes don’t satisfy like they used to.
Putting a book together like Flowers of the Holy Land is not an easy enterprise, and requires imagination and many staff resources. But it can be done.
Reading Spafford’s description of the Pink Cistus (myrrh), I found the Genesis description she quoted also applied to Hallmark. The riches are there for the picking; it is up to Hallmark’s leadership and artists to make a new generation of products that does more than clutter up America’s already-too-hoarded houses.
Take of the best fruits of the land in your vessels, and carry down the man a present, a little balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, nuts and diamonds.