BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : NOVEMBER 1, 1999 ISSUE
BUSINESS WEEK E.BIZ -- CLICKS & MISSES

You'll Laugh, You'll Cry, You'll Send a Card
But which online greeting-card site is the one for you?

My neighbor sends me a card each Christmas, without fail. Otherwise, we mostly crab at each other about suburbia's three Ps--parking, property lines, and dog poop--when we talk at all. The one thing that separates us from the beasts is that card. So as greeting cards move onto the Web, they've got to get it right. After all, no less than the future of civilization may depend on it.

With that in mind, I spent a day checking out the card section of Amazon.com (AMZN), the online store at Hallmark.com, and the Web's online card leader, BlueMountainArts.com. Along the way, I sent encouraging cards to colleagues who spent that day trying to write and edit a bunch of stories on the merger of MCI WorldCom Inc. (WCOM) and Sprint Corp (FON). I like to think I gave them hope that they, too, might one day goof off for fun and profit. The verdict: I like all three sites, but for different reasons and different purposes.

Like siblings, these sites have personalities. Amazon is the funny one, with the youngest, hippest selection. Hallmark is the practical one, the oldest sibling if you will, that tends toward a touch of stuffiness. And Blue Mountain Arts is the sappy one, full of dumb jokes and dumber poetry, including a whole featured area for the card-shop poet Susan Polis Schutz, the voice that launched a thousand high school yearbook quotes. The bottom line: Which site you like depends less on them than on you.

THREE C'S. The usual trick with Web reviews is to grade sites for their content (can you learn interesting stuff?), commerce (can you buy interesting stuff?), and community (can you meet interesting people, who won't invite you to hotels if you say you're 14?). Plus, you grade the sites for ease of navigation. But these measures are almost useless here. Most card sites don't sell much--of these three, only Hallmark even tried with some. But they just dropped a $1.50 charge for cards with moving cartoons. These sites don't have chat rooms, and they're all easy to navigate.

Greeting cards, and greeting card sites, exist to do three things. They make you laugh. They make you cry. They make you hug. How well they do that is the only meaningful thing that separates them. So, onward!

WE LAUGH. No contest--Amazon wins. For example: After MCI WorldCom beat out BellSouth Corp. (BLS) for the right to pay $129 billion for Sprint, I knew what the world needed. It needed someone to send MCI WorldCom Chief Executive Bernie Ebbers a nice congratulations card.

I go to Amazon. Hmm. ''Congratulations on Dumping the Loser?'' No, not that one. The Sprint guys are staying, they swear. The ones about becoming a fat cat or a big dog? Cute, but Bernie's been a big dog for a while now. I settle on the one with refrigerator magnet-style letters on the front, the kind that you can rearrange to craft your own message--but Amazon did it for me. Click on this congratulations card and you find out the same letters can also spell ''Ira Cut a Long Snot,'' which the animated card displays before rearranging the letters to ''Congratulations.'' And that's how Amazon is. It's frat-boy humor, but it's funny.

If you don't like it, consider the choices: At Blue Mountain, the funniest congratulations card is a picture of dancing vermin captioned ''Conga-Rats.'' Some people like that one--my wife has sent it--but if it's the funniest one in the pack, it's a pretty weak pack. Hallmark was somewhere in between. Some of its candidates for Bernie cards were amusing, but the site's real character is more like its ''Good Friend, Good News'' congratulations card. Correct, kind of safe. A card to send to your boss. But Bernie will remember Ira's snot a lot longer. Trust me.

WE HUG. Blue Mountain Arts wins here. Its best characteristic overall is the sheer number of cards it has, and sentiment is where it makes the biggest effort. Now, I am not a core customer for this sort of thing--that would be the sappy sibling I don't happen to have--but I don't need to be a weatherman to feel which way this wind blows. For schmaltz, there is no comparison.

Blue Mountain's ace in the hole in this area is Schutz. I may think the woman slings more syrup than Aunt Jemima, but others' heartstrings are positively plucked by Schutz cards whose poems begin, ''I want to have a lasting relationship with you.'' And many more just head-poundingly like them. But the site's penchant for sweetness, which makes it a place for ''relationship'' cards, also works for certain Christmas cards and for other occasions that call for earnestness.

Amazon's not as good at this because it doesn't try as hard. Amazon's ''Love'' cards ranged from the cutesy ''We Make a Good Pear'' (with a picture of fruit) to puppies in a basket captioned ''Snuggles Enclosed.'' Aww. In between, there were art-photography cards that regular people would send. In sentimental cards, just as in humor, Hallmark is too safe. But it's worse in this context. It's one thing to make a safe joke. But safe sentiment is no sentiment at all.

WE CRY. Hallmark is the only one of these sites that really does card content and related commerce in one place. In other words, if you want flowers to go with a condolence card (or a Valentine, for that matter), they're right there. You don't have to follow a link off the site to reach the commerce, as you do at Blue Mountain Arts. At Amazon, you can buy almost anything but flowers and there are no sympathy cards, which seems an odd omission. Hallmark's flowers were convenient, but isn't $65 for a bunch of carnations a little pricey? As my wife can attest, however, I am no authority on the proper price of flowers.

In the end, it's a matter of taste. Hallmark is earnest and correct, but dull even when it's trying not to be. Blue Mountain Arts lays it on thick in every category. Amazon? They mostly tell us we can be a kid forever. And at least at the time of year we're entering, most of us are.

By TIMOTHY J. MULLANEY

Have a question or a comment for Tim Mullaney? Let him know at tim_mullaney@ebiz.businessweek.com.

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