Hearne: Hallmark Cards, Crown Center on Endangered Species List

For three days when I’ve looked out my bedroom window I’ve gazed upon the Crown Center complex…

Which, as you  might surmise, is because I’m staying at the Westin Crown Center Hotel. It’s been a while since I’ve spent this much time hanging at Crown Center, and that’s probably true for many of you. Unless like the great suburban masses you’ve barely been here ever if at all.

The experience has sparked some observations and even caused me to wonder about the very future of Hallmark Cards, that giant among giants of heritage Kansas City companies.

But first let’s get a few of the day-to-day things out of the way.

The hotel looks very similar to the way it first did when Crown Center opened in 1971.

Take you back?

Unfortunately, even with all the changes and improvements, the hotel is looking a little long in the tooth – the yellowed comforter on my bed, dated hotel room furniture, carpeting and wallpaper (you heard it right, wallpaper). And tap water that’s cloudy beyond belief.

Overall most everything is still nice, but the signs are there; it’s no longer a signature hotel for Kansas City the way it once was.

A couple of the hotel lobby elevator signs still advise guests to go to Benton’s Prime Steakhouse, which of course is long closed. For the uninitiated the restaurant was named after Kansas City artist Thomas Hart Benton.

Which kinda makes Benton’s memory ring a little hollow.

Like who was this Benton dude and what was that place like? And the signs are still up because why again?

The indoor/outdoor cliff edge overlooking the lobby bar is still intact and ready to host upscale cocktail receptions and the like. And the Brasserie restaurant and bar off the main lobby is bigger than ever. However, the fabled, Polynesian-style restaurant Trade Vic’s is long gone (the ones in Atlanta, Beverly Hills, London and Tokyo are still open), but if you need to use the restroom, you’ve got a long walk ahead of you from the lobby to the restrooms where Trader Vic’s once stood.

Speaking of legendary eating establishments…

I never ate at the Streetcar Named Desire when it was near 50th and Main just off the Plaza. I was a stock and commodities broker back then and there were way too many daytime drinking floor traders from the Kansas City Board of Trade there to suite my taste. However I’ve tried it a couple times in its transplanted form at Crown Center on the lower level near the shops.

It’s even got the cool, actual streetcar frontage.

Unfortunately it’s usually pretty dead whenever I go – like it was Wednesday night – and its fabled burger leaves much to be, uh, desired. Mostly because it’s small and uneventful with a grocery store quality bun.

Was it always that way?

I’ll try The Big George next time if it’s still open.

Many, if not most, of the Crown Center shops I recall from the past 10 years are still there (it seems) and for the most part they’re unique and upscale. However, the mall’s foot traffic appears light and unlike many suburban stores they close really early.

It’s long been said that Hallmark has had to subsidize many of the retailers to keep them afloat and the place hopping. I vaguely remember when Crown Center opened that it was packed with shops and boutiques that were not long for this world.

Which brings me to my main point.

How much longer will Hallmark Cards be able to subsidize this downtown money loser?

While there’s a chance that the growth of downtown – people moving to apartments and condos there – could save it, it’s clear that Hallmark Cards is fast becoming an endangered species.

Over the years I’ve talked to owners and employees of many of the company’s once ubiquitous Hallmark Cards and Gold Crown shops. And many of those shops, as you know, have closed in recent years.

Even in Dear Old Brookside.

To my thinking paper greeting cards are fast becoming a thing of the past. Older people still buy them but for how long? It’s always been more of a chick and kiddie thing, but people don’t go out and buy and send cards like they used to.

As evidenced by the fact that the United States Post Office is losing its ass because far fewer people are mailing things. And look at the layoffs at Hallmark in recent years, including one this past April that while “voluntary” was expected to yield 300 to 400 job losses.

Like many old school businesses – I’m thinking of print publications like The Star, Newsweek – paper products with information and messages are going away at a fast clip. On top of that, it’s not easy replacing them online profit-wise.

Newspapers and magazines can make it – although online revenues are a fraction of what they’ve enjoyed for decades with their core product – because they have resources that mostly still give them a news monopoly in most markets.

You want a halfway comprehensive look at what’s going on in Kansas City? You won’t get it on TV news or from bloggers like The Pitch, rewriting and rehashing the reporting of others while throwing in the odd restaurant review and a feature story. They need the Star to tee off from.

Electronic greeting cards are another matter.

Hallmark.com advertises “Free Cards” online, but that’s gonna keep the wolf away from the door for how long?

And good luck claiming those “free e cards” at Hallmark’s Web site. The game plan there is to sell you a card, plus I can’t tell you the last time somebody sent me an e card. Maybe last year. And I didn’t open it until I was advised to because I’m wary of clicking on suspicious email links.

A recent news story in Santa Barbara about the closing of a Hallmark store there says it all.

“Business Opportunity and Future Not in the Cards for PJ’s Hallmark Store,” the headline reads from a story on Noozhawk this past January. “Changes in culture, technology help seal fate for greeting-card shop, but owners say they don’t need a sympathy card.”

“I don’t think anything replaces the touch and feel you get when selecting a card for someone,” store owner Pam Dunford is quoted. “You can’t replace that on the Internet.”

None of which saved Dunford from going toes up.

Yet while the story goes on to say, the Greeting Card Association claims that 9 out of 10 households in this country buy greeting cards each year, $5.50 greeting card costs are a turnoff and younger people prefer texting and email.

The greeting card store “business model” no longer works is the bottom line and even prepaid postage cards were a bust according to a Gold Crown staffer I spoke with at Oak Park Mall last Christmas.

Hallmark shops are even dying in small towns like Hastings, Nebraska, population just under 25,000.

“Hometown Variety/Sherry’s Cards and Gifts at 620 W. Second Street will become the latest iconic institution in the city to go under,” the Hastings Tribune reported earlier this month. “It will join OK Cafe on the list of longtime Hastings businesses to close this year.”

The store had been open since 1979. So much for small town values.

The point being, the days of Hallmark throwing money at the red ink machines like Crown Center may be nearing an end. And what then will become of this iconic downtown landmark?

Who will the new standard bearing Kansas City companies be for Generation Next?

Remember that story I wrote about recently, Nine Great American Companies The Will Never Recover?

Remember Marion Labs whose founder Ewing Kauffman rescued Major League Baseball (for what that’s now worth) in Kansas City? You don’t hear much about American Century these days. Nor Kansas City Southern or Applebee’s. Sprint is on the Nine That Will Never Recover list. And if anybody ever gets around to simplifying the tax code like they threaten to, what will become of H&R Block?

Anyway, check out the massive scale model of Hallmark’s proudest achievement – the Crown Center Complex – next time you’re down here.

It’s just past the Streetcar to the right as you walk towards the Crown Center hotel lobby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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28 Responses to Hearne: Hallmark Cards, Crown Center on Endangered Species List

  1. Jim says:

    Man, has there ever been a better gig than selling 6″x 4″ pieces of cardboard for $5 to $7 that gets tossed a day or two after it’s opened? Back in the day, grabbing a Hallmark card was just what you did for birthdays, weddings, etc. Now, the market is flooded with options that cost $1 or $2. BTW-check our Cirilla’s if you are looking for an edgy card. Some real classics. But, I digress….

    The worlds a changin’. Why should Hallmark be exempt? Evolve or die.

    • mike says:

      Many don’t mail cards at all when you can send e-cards over the internet. You are right. You have to not only keep up with the times, but keep ahead of them and be an innovator to really be sucessful. The world can pass you by in an instant.

  2. JC says:

    The aquarium and lego world should help alot. Families will begin to come into town and stay in the hotel. Well, I hope so they will. A great idea would be to remodel the hotel and make it more kid friendly with bunk beds and such. Figure out a way to put in a nice pool with a few slides and the place will be humming. I am guessing Hearne does not have any kids because Crown Center is a kid magnet these days. I know, us breeders are so boring. BTW, we have great companies here in town. Waddell & Reed and Cerner to name a few.

    • admin says:

      Let me get this straight; you want to turn the Westin and Crown Center into the Ramada and Oceans of Fun? Not gonna happen.

      The aquarium is way too dinky to be much of a magnet. Ditto for Legoland. Crown Center cheaped out on this one.
      And yes, I have twin daughters and I’ve driven them all over the country including to the really cool 20 times or more bigger aquarium in tiny Chattanooga, Tennessee.

      Cerner stepped up to buy the Wizards, now Sporting but that doesn’t compare to buying and funding an MLB or NFL team. Waddell & Reed is big, but what have they done besides rescue Breech Academy from TWA and make it their HQ?

  3. Rick Nichols says:

    Disposable income. Fewer and fewer people have it anymore. Mitt Romney may be hiding his tax returns because he doesn’t want us to know how much he’s really worth, but he’s certainly on to something when he talks about 23 million Americans being out of work as opposed to the 12 million and change the Department of Labor says is the case. At any rate, high-end places like Crown Center that the middle class could frequently or at least occasionally patronize stand to be hurt by the ongoing downward spiral in middle-class purchasing power as wages basically remain flat against the backdrop of rising health care costs, fuel costs, etc., etc. And look at a place like Branson that relies heavily on tourists from the greatest generation to keep the doors of the theaters open night after night. Those folks were in on some of America’s best years in terms of steady jobs with good incomes, but when they’re all gone, who’s going to keep Branson in business? Those who comprise that generation have been for the most part lifetime readers of the newspaper and senders of cards, but boomers don’t read papers and send cards like their parents did, and the generation behind the boomers (Generation “X”?) is even worse. Johnson County wants to open a relocated museum dedicated to suburbia in the former home of King Louie Lanes on Metcalf Avenue. Maybe Crown Center should just close its doors and reopen as a museum dedicated to the ’70s.

    • the plank panther says:

      Johnson County already IS a museum of suburbia.

      But most of the Crown Center mall was in need of an overhaul fifteen years ago. It has some decent lunch places (yes, “Desire” is not one of them, I totally agree – overpriced, underwhelming, and served on styrofoam plates!) but that’s about it.

  4. balbonis moleskine says:

    I went to a baby shower last week. Unbelieveably, one of my female friends trusts me enough to be around her unborn child.

    Well I got to see the 20 or so gifts she got from people of various income levels.

    Nobody had Hallmark cards. I personally bought one from Carlton Cards who appears to be owned by Hall rival American Greetings. Others were blank and had funny/cute/sweet things written on them. The majority I recognized from the 1.99 stack at Target.

    I just don’t see the use of paying $5 for a card that isn’t even personalized. Maybe if their $5 card could be run through a printer and have a custom message printed on there I’d be down. Otherwise I’d just rather spend the extra $5 on a nice decorative bag or something.

    As for E-cards, those are so 1998. Nobody opens those anymore (as Hearne correctly pointed out) because of virus risk.

    • the dude says:

      Like, soooooooooooo 1998.
      Fer sure.

    • smartman says:

      Well, it looks like you don’t care enough to send the very best. First thing I think when somebody sends me a card and it’s not from Hallmark is, “cheap bastards”. I just reordered 600 personalized note cards and matching envelopes from Crane. Paid close to $3.00 per card and envelope. Have the monogramed wax seal to go with it. Normally I’m so tight my toes curl up when I open my eyes but that expense, crazy stupid as it is, does make a very strong impression with customers. In one recent case the card I sent as a follow up to a quote persuaded the customer to give me a huge chunk of business that will count for a third of my gross income this year. There is nothing wrong with money well spent.

      • mike says:

        There will probably always be some market for that kind of stuff. It’s kind of like the newspaper business and the Postal service. It is a matter of how big the business will be in the future and adjusting overhead and payroll down to that level to survive.

  5. Super Dave says:

    Ummmmm new wife already kicked you out?

  6. Craig Glazer says:

    Hearne nice job of reporting Hearne…like all the information on yesterdays and today…yeah nothing lasts forever…even flowerpot bread…well done.

  7. smartman says:

    Hearne nice job of reporting Hearne….WTF? See Dick run. Run Dick run.

  8. the dude says:

    Glazer meet Glazer.

  9. harley says:

    glaze some things do last foreever but it has to be worth the price of addmissiomn. ie rolling stones, mccartney, french fries etc etc

    • smartman says:

      Hallmark is so much more than greeting cards. Just visit Walmart, Target, HEB, Kroger, Party City, etc. They have hundreds if not thousands of SKU’s in Party Goods, gift wrap, paper goods, etc. They are better led and managed and far more agile and financially strong then any of their hometown brethren.

      Gold Crown stores are in a world of hurt since anything that you can buy at a Gold Crown store you can probably get at Walmart for at least 50% less. That’s a merchandising problem more than anything.

      There have been recent articles in the WSJ, NYT and Vanity Fair suggesting that handwritten notes and cards are making a comeback among twenty and thirty something’s who are starting to abhor the impersonal nature and commodity of electronic communication. Nothing like getting a hand written card from your lover, spritzed with her perfume, telling you how she’s going to fuck your brains out the next time your wife’s out of town getting her brains fucked out by her lover. It’s sexy, discreet and isn’t going to sit on some server for perpetuity.

      Lego Land and the Aquarium seem to be a nice shot of Botox in the sagging ass cheeks. Met a friend at Crown Center for lunch yesterday and the place was crawling with smoking hot 25 to 40 year old MILF’s.

      I do miss the Crystal Pavilion where I spent thousands of dollars on Dom Perignon washing down kilos of Peruvian Flake….but oh…the memories!

      The Legends goes the way of Bannister Mall long before Crown Center.

  10. PucKChaser says:

    Were there any facts to substantiate this story or was it pure speculation?

    By the way, American Century is doing quite well. All employees got an extra paycheck in 2011/early 2012.
    https://www.americancentury.com/press/cibc.jsp

  11. Rick says:

    Hearne-

    Good story. Your mention of commodities made me recall “we” actually had a brief business mtg. waaay back in the day. As a young KCK kid from the swanky 14th &Central Ave area, with a vast fortune ranging well into the hundreds of dollars, I thought I would try to get in on the soybean commodities bubble back in the 70s. I went to BC, and they assigned you to talk with me about opening an acct.

    I’m sure I added several zeros to whatever net worth questions on the form. Anyway, after the meeting, you actually walked me outside to the street parking, and waved as I got into my clunker Pontiac.

    Obviously I had no business trading commodities, and didn’t pursue it . But was that one of your screening tricks?, to see what kind of car the prospective clients were driving, or just good manners?

    I enjoy your site – thks!

  12. expat says:

    I like the Westin — but not the one in Kansas City. Although the lobby had the same “Westin smell” as the ones around the world, everything else was getting shabby. The wallpaper was starting to yellow and fall off at the tops of the walls and there were cobwebs in the corners. My search for a decent hotel in KC that doesn’t involve driving to Johnson County continues…

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