As mailboxes across America fill to the brim with holiday cards each December, the online marketplace selling them is crowded as well in what can be both a consumer's bonanza and nightmare.
Competition drives prices down, but there simply may be too many choices.
Just as other retailers try to lure buyers earlier and earlier ahead of "Black Friday" and "Cyber Monday," the business of holiday cards starts cranking up as summer first turns to autumn.
Most card companies report the biggest swell of customers after Thanksgiving and right up to the days preceding Christmas - with some 2 billion cards sold for the holiday season, according to the Greeting Card Association.
Hallmark spokeswoman Jaci Twidwell says the majority of sales are in the final three weeks before Christmas.
That many cards being produced largely in the last month - and last minute - means that early autumn is an optimal time for companies that print cards to try to snag some extra business. To wit, consumers should see an abundance of discount offers.
WHERE THE DEALS ARE
Joanie Demer, co-founder of deal site TheKrazyCouponLady.com, has already found lots of deals this year. Among them: 50 cards on Winkflash.com for $18.50. She also notes that established big-box stores, including Walmart (50 for $14), Sam's Club (30 for $10.50) and Costco (50 for $14.99) were all recently offering deals on holiday cards. Walgreens was promoting 50 percent off all photo cards.
Snapfish says it is planning a 50 percent-off sale on photo cards in about two weeks, and Hallmark plans to offer $10 off any personalized photo card purchase of $30 or more.
Demer says consumers should never have to pay for shipping because there are always free shipping codes to be had. Laura Ching, co-founder and chief design officer at Shutterfly's Tiny Prints division, says free shipping or discounted priority shipping becomes a bigger part of the puzzle as it gets closer to the holidays when "urgency is just as much of a value."
Another option when trying to dodge shipping costs is using a brick-and-mortar chain - whether it be CVS or Staples - where orders can be picked up in person.
While there are deals aplenty on holiday cards, especially this time of year, that does not mean all are created equal. There is a considerable quality difference, says Mary Humphreys of NextAdvisor.com, which ordered cards from a dozen vendors for a study to rate the quality of the products.
For one thing, she says, the cards can be printed on anything from high-quality "museum board" to a simple sheet of photo paper and the resolution of the images and the printing quality also varied considerably.
In general, she says, paying more will get you higher quality. "The more expensive tend to be toward the tops and the less expensive ones toward the bottom."
But that's not always the case, Humphreys says, citing Peartree Greetings as an example of a company that had a low price and high quality. Prices ranged from about $1.35 per card to $2.56 per card on an order of 25 cards - not including any discounts.
The sites that offered the most impressive cards, according to NextAdvisor, were Tiny Prints, Paper Culture, Minted, Pear Tree and Simply to Impress. The site also measured ease of use.
MORE ADVANTAGES FOR EARLY BIRDS
Another advantage to ordering cards early, Tiny Prints' Ching notes, is that there is more time to devote to customizing - including with a graphic designer, a service offered by her company and others for an additional charge per card. Card sites are typically set up to let people use a collection of templates - a big variable from one site to the next - into which they upload one or more photos and create a unique card.
On Shutterfly, for instance, you can choose from more than 500 templates with designs of all sorts - getting a simple photo card for about 70 cents each (prices drop with the volume of the order) to folded card stock for about $2 apiece.
For those who decide to try to come up with a picture for their cards at the last minute, there are fewer options as the holiday season days dwindle.
"If you're going to wait until after Thanksgiving, it's going to be harder to get something you'll be happy with," Ching says.
However, she says that while deals can help attract consumers, that does not appear to be the prime mover of what little early traffic there is.
"Families that have great summer vacation photos tend to get their cards done earlier. In order to get motivated earlier in the season, you have to be passionate about a photo you've already taken," Ching says.
But for those looking for both a deal and to have one less thing hanging over their heads as the holidays approach, ordering cards early has proven beneficial.
Karen Hoxmeier, 39, of Murrieta, California, runs the site MyBargainBuddy.com and was first lured to the company Vista Print a few years ago after getting a half-off offer.
"Previously, I had purchased boxed Christmas cards, which were starting to feel boring. I had a lot of fun choosing a card template and a photo of my own to incorporate with it ... I typically order 50 per year and I try to order them in October, just so I can cross one of my tasks off my holiday to-do list early."
Plus, she adds that it helps her avoid what procrastinators often get hit with: "I don't have to pay extra for expedited shipping."
(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow us @ReutersMoney or here. Editing by Beth Pinsker Gladstone and Maureen Bavdek)