Laugh a Little

For NobleWorks President and Creative Director Ron Kanfi, success was in the cards — literally. Thirty years after visiting New York City as a tourist with only a return ticket, a brown canvas backpack (with an attached sleeping bag, of course), two pairs of jeans, the sneakers on his feet and $1,000 saved diligently by selling drawings on street corners, Kanfi is still doing noble work — pushing funny cards.

“I was planning to buy a car and travel cross-country, but even back then $1,000 couldn’t buy you the kind of car that would get you coast-to-coast, never mind the kind I was prepared to be seen driving,” Kanfi said. “I ended up spending the first three months in New York City living with cousins on dicey E. 14th St., and I got a job washing dishes in a small cafe in the East Village through some people they knew. As luck would have it, the cook’s roommate was a part-time assistant to Christopher Noble, who had just started NobleWorks.”

At the time, the line consisted of about 15 greeting cards, all printed black-and-white. The card covers had graphics of words like “Happy Birthday” or “Get Well” and to create a three-dimensional illusion, they hand-applied lines of latex paint to the covers.

“My first big, important job at NobleWorks was applying the lines of paint one card at a time, at a rate of two cents per line,” Kanfi said. “Back then I was making $10 an hour, which was way better than minimum wage, and shortly thereafter Christopher offered me the opportunity to be his assistant.”

The company kept growing, and about two years later Kanfi became part owner — a partnership that lasted more than 18 years until Noble died in 2001.

An Alternative
Kanfi’s been with the company since 1983, so he’s seen how the industry has changed since NobleWorks was started three decades ago. He said alternative card stores were popping up “like mushrooms after the rain,” and the greeting card industry seemed to be experiencing a major growth spurt.

“Mass-market and big-box stores weren’t really players in the card business, or at least not as it pertained to us,” he said. “It seems that back then, most of the card publishers were smaller companies, and there were very few large corporate entities besides Hallmark, Gibson Greetings and American Greetings. The National Stationery Show was still housed at the N.Y. Coliseum on Columbus Circle, until it moved to the newly built Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in 1986. It was the largest show held at the Javits Center at the time.”

Besides the market being fundamentally different from a distribution standpoint, the market was also quite different from a humor standpoint. Kanfi explained that so much of humor has to do with shock value and surprise, which back then was a lot easier to produce.

“Viagra ads on television and sex tapes on the Internet were not yet run-of-the-mill occurrences,” he said. “Nudity was still a novelty back then, at least when it came to products sold and available in legitimate Main Street stores. Profanity was nowhere to be found on TV, on cards or in print. The gay lifestyle was an altogether taboo topic, relegated to very specific outlets on Christopher Street in New York City or the Castro in San Francisco.”

Kanfi said that as the years wore on, the novelty wore off. With gay characters having gained prevalent presence on primetime TV and the Internet providing easy access and minimal prudent censorship, shock value has become extinct. This makes the challenge of staying relevant, funny and fresh harder and harder.

“I do think that greeting cards, though less popular today than they were 30 years ago, are still relevant — the same way that fresh flowers are still relevant despite silk flowers, no matter how perfect they might be,” he said. “People still love funny, cute and pretty things and they love to be able to hold, touch and keep sentimental and meaningful items. E-mails, text messages and video clips are fun, but do not measure up when it comes to the personal touch of receiving a real greeting card from people who are dear to us.”

And people like to laugh, making humorous greeting cards the perfect impulse purchase for party stores already carrying themes and Over-the-Hill-type products. Kanfi said a compact rack of humor cards, strategically placed, can make it fun for folks to browse by the register or anywhere else in the store, for that matter. It’s an opportunity to enhance a party store’s unique identity and to help differentiate it from the big-box competition.

“Also, when it comes to humor cards, it seems that consumers tend to purchase more cards than they actually need,” Kanfi added. “In fact, statistics show that consumers will buy 12 to 15 humor cards at a time. I can’t imagine that anyone has 15 birthday parties to go to in one weekend, or even two, so it’s a great add-on category for party stores and also a low-cost investment.”

Since almost everyone attending a party for a birthday, anniversary, wedding, etc. will be bringing a card, it’s important to capture their sale before they walk out. After all, if you’re not carrying cards, they’ll find another store that is.

Originally posted Tuesday, May. 4, 2010