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Personalize your holiday cards

Goldberg: Send a special message, use a personalized photo or both
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Leslie Prager, a career counselor in Manhattan, starts to think about holiday cards in mid-July. “We’re not talking 25 cards. It’s a major production and…I have to plan in advance,” says Prager about the 1,000 card mailing she sends in December.

MOST OF US are not that organized but even in the cyber age, send out cards by snail mail. Many well wishers, however, use a home or office computer for part or all of the process.

Prager orders her holiday cards from a card catalog at a local printer and has her company name, The Prager-Bernstein Group prager-bernsteingroup.com, imprinted on the card. To save time, she stores recipients’ addresses in a computerized database and prints address labels for the envelopes from an office computer. But she hand signs each card, and writes a personal note for as many as she can. “It’s a nice way to stay in touch with people you can’t be in touch with every year,” says Prager, who seeks out “non-corporate looking” cards, such as an old-fashioned Victorian scene.

“In some worlds, everything is done in cyberspace,” says Prager. But if Prager sees her name on a mass e-mail greeting, she thinks not much thought or effort went in the process.

By early December, all Prager’s cards are in the mail. “I like people to have them and enjoy them for awhile,” she says.

PICTURE-PERFECT CARDS

Kathy Georgopoulos, a cyber-savvy mother of one with another on its way, usually orders her holiday cards just about when Prager is putting them in the mail. Throughout the year, Georgopoulos produces digital snapshots of her beautiful 4-year-old daughter Sophie and e-mails them to friends and family. But when it comes to holiday cards, she takes no chances.

Georgopoulos still personalizes her holiday cards with a photo of her daughter and places the order online. But she intentionally orders the cards from a local shop in Arlington, Mass., Cameras Inc., so she can pick them up in person. “If it is near the holidays, I don’t want to wait on the mail,” she says.

Georgopoulos has used one-stop photo service shutterfly.com when she’s less concerned about delays in the mail. Other shops with similar services include San Francisco, Calif.-based snapfish.com and Emeryville Calif.-based ofoto.com, a wholly owned subsidiary of Eastman Kodak Company.

Ordering personalized cards from any of these shops is relatively straight forward. (After individual training sessions at both ofoto.com and snapfish.com, that is.) Most online photo-service sites require cyber shoppers to sign up—name, e-mail and password are required — before they can view the card selection.

Next, the trick is to transfer the images to the company’s Web site. Presumably, digital camera users know how to or can learn how to complete this task. (Basically it involves uploading the images from the camera or a memory card to a CD or the hard drive, and then dragging the photos to the company’s Web site.) Georgopoulos admits her husbands transfers the images for her.

Cyber savvy or not, customers can send the film directly to the company and for a small fee, the photo shop will upload the images. (Shutterfly.com charges $3.99; snapfish.com costs $4.98; and ofoto.com costs $3.95.) Most companies provide customers with a heavy plastic mailer to send the film.

The rest is a matter of navigating through each site and pulling images out of online “photo albums.” I was able to create a card with a photo and a personalized message in less than five minutes at ofoto.com, using an existing photo album. But remember that’s after two hands-on demonstrations, which lasted about ½ hour each, and I am cyber savvy. As with many cyber experiences, it may take more time to learn the system than use it, but then it’s a walk in the park, and what a wonderful walk, it is.

Styles and prices vary at each shop. The most popular format is the photo card, an image and message printed on photographic paper. Cyber shoppers pick the photo, write a message and then choose a border to “frame” their loved one. Borders range from simple snowflakes to Christmas wreaths, Chanukah lights and colorful Kwanzaa designs. Shutterfly.com has 85 holiday-themed borders, compared to only 17 borders at snapfish.com, but the cost per card at shutterfly.com is slightly higher.

On average, photo cards cost about $1 each. Most photo cards come with envelopes. One pack of 20 4-by-8 inch photo cards at snapfish.com cost $12.89 plus $2.99 shipping and handling, which is equivalent to about 79 cents a card. A box of 25 4-by-8 inch cards at shutterfly.com sells for .99 a card plus $4.49 shipping, which equals about $1.17 each. Ofoto.com 5-by-7 inch photo cards come in 28 styles. A box of 20 cards costs $19.99 plus $3.99 shipping and handling, or about $1.20 per card.

Prices drop for both shipping and the cards as the size of the order increases at all three shops. Check individual sites for details.

SEND A SPECIAL MESSAGE

Cyber shoppers also may personalize a card — sans the photo — at several shops online. Hallmark.com has one of the largest card centers online. About 100 out of 109 boxed holiday cards may be personalized with a family name and/or greeting, says a company representative. Holiday themes run the gamut from traditional images, such as a winter landscape to contemporary designs — like a Cowboy-themed card.

The “Circle of Peace” card — found in the multi-cultural card section — comes with a message printed inside the card that says, “In your heart … peace. In your home … happiness. In the world … love.” The card costs 60 cents “as is” with a return address printed on the envelopes. Add a personal message below the Hallmark one and it costs an additional 30 cents per card. Provide addresses to Hallmark and have them put address labels on each card — or even have them mail the cards — runs $1.15 per card plus postage. The minimum order for personalized boxed cards is 20.

Through Dec. 15, standard shipping is free for boxed holiday cards on orders of $30. The offer is not valid for personalized cards sent directly to recipients. Enter the promotion code FSGC at the checkout and make sure to click the “update total” button so that the discount will be applied to the order.

Even with the huge selection, Prager says it’s getting harder and harder to find one holiday card she can send to everyone on her list because one image doesn’t fit all the holidays. Next year, maybe she’ll consider a card from the holidaycardcenter.org/2003/HC/main.asp. The card center brings together several non-profit shops including Ducks Unlimited www.ducks.org, National Audubon Society, National Geographic, the Smithsonian and World Wildlife Fund. Here she’ll find many universal images, such as three golden retriever puppies nestled in a group from the American Humane Association or a winter nautical scene from Boat Owners Association of The United States.

Teri Goldberg is MSNBC.com’s shopping writer. Write to her at personalshopper@msnbc.com