Will anthrax be the Grinch that steals this year's Christmas cards?
With the mysterious spread of anthrax through the mail and, most recently, the unexplained contraction of the disease by an Oxford, Conn., woman who died Wednesday, there is reason to wonder just how much Christmas card-sending will go on this year.
And what about the receiving end? Will people be less than thrilled at the prospect of opening dozens, or hundreds, of cards this year? If you talk to people in the card industry and at the post office, consumers won't let any such fears stop them.
Research by both Hallmark Cards Inc. and American Greetings had similar results: 90 percent of those interviewed said they would send the same number or more Christmas cards this year.
Hallmark's studies relied on consumer groups of 200 to 300 people in Chicago and Baltimore interviewed in October and again in November. American Greetings commissioned a study of 1,037 women. (Women send 90 percent of all traditional greeting cards.)
The studies could be criticized as self-promotional, but Laurie Henrichsen, American Greetings spokeswoman, said the company wanted to determine the dynamics of the holiday market. "Obviously, it's to our benefit to find out what our customer demands are," she said.
Most of those surveyed for American Greetings said they weren't concerned about handling holiday cards this year.
Sue Brennan, a Postal Service spokeswoman, said that historically, in times of war and unrest, mail volume increases because people feel the need to connect with one another.
She stressed that only three tainted letters have been found among the 30 billion pieces of mail delivered in the United States since Sept. 11. Brennan said she expects the Christmas mail to reach normal seasonal levels but does expect that people will "look at their mail and be vigilant."
If our leaders are any example, Christmas cards will flow as usual.
The Bushes will send cards as they always do, an aide to the first lady said Wednesday.
Analysts who follow the card industry say they doubt the tragedies of recent months will affect Christmas-card sending.
E. Gray Glass, a financial adviser to First Union Securities in Richmond, Va., said there might be some regionalized hesitance to send cards.
For instance, he said that in Connecticut - where 94-year-old Ottilie W. Lundgren mysteriously contracted anthrax and died from it Wednesday - there may be greater localized caution about the mail than elsewhere.
Sheldon Grodsky, director of research for Grodsky Associates of South Orange, N.J., said he doubts the card industry will be substantially affected by the terror, but it's probably too early to tell.
"Some people may not send cards because they may be afraid people will throw them out," he said.
However, Grodsky said, he would expect an increase in cards rather than a decrease. "If people do less traveling, they may send more cards," he said.
Some will send greetings via e-mail, but most will opt for the real thing.
For, as Dave Poplar, investor relations manager for American Greetings, said, e-cards don't tend to look quite as nice on the mantel.
Kathleen Megan and Mary K. Feeney are reporters for The Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.