The coronavirus pandemic has left retailers scrambling to meet a crushing demand for everything from milk to toilet paper to flour and yeast.

But there is another shortage, perhaps less obvious but more heart wrenching. In stores, next to an ample supply of birthday cards and thank you notes, the sympathy cards are nearly all sold out.

The greeting card aisle, with its pastel-colored envelopes and messages for every occasion, offers a snapshot of the virus’s wicked toll. While many celebrations and milestones have been put on hold, grief is in abundance.

“The number of orders we see coming in for sympathy is stunning,” said Alan Friedman, who runs a silk screen card company, Great Arrow Graphics, in Buffalo, New York, and is a board member of the Greeting Card Association, the industry trade group. “It seems like just about everyone knows someone who has died.”

Even at a time of perpetual Zoom gatherings and virtual hugs, big retailers are struggling to keep up with the demand for old-school sympathy cards. CVS, one of the nation’s largest sellers of greeting cards, said it was seeing “higher demand for sympathy cards than most other types of greeting cards during the pandemic” and was experiencing shortages in certain stores. Shoppers across the country have posted on social media that their local Winn Dixie or ShopRite was running out of cards.

On Etsy, the online marketplace for crafts and jewelry, searches for sympathy cards more than doubled from March 1 to April 17 compared with the same period a year ago.

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“It makes me sick in my heart, every order that comes in,” said Elizabeth Avalos, who sells greeting cards online from her home in Valley Springs, California. In a typical month, she sells about six sympathy cards. She sold 37 in March and more than 275 so far this month.

Some of the shortages have been caused by distribution problems. Pharmacies and grocery chains, focused on keeping their shelves stocked with household staples, are not allowing card companies to come into the stores and restock regularly. With stores running out and people unable to leave their homes, many card sales have moved online and are at record levels, suppliers say.

Before the pandemic, the greeting card industry had experienced declining sales. Some big retailers recently cut back on the aisle space devoted to cards. The parent company of high-end card retailer Papyrus declared bankruptcy in January and closed all of the brand’s stores. But virtual communication has its limits, especially in times of grief. With many people unable to attend funerals or drop off food for a grieving neighbor, or even offer an embrace, mailing a sympathy card seems more necessary.

Two weeks ago, Barbara Macchiaroli, 75, bought eight sympathy cards at her local pharmacy in Huntington, New York.

Barbara Macchiaroli, whose longtime companion died of the virus the day after Easter, outside her home in Huntington, N.Y. on April 23. (JOHNNY MILANO / NYT)
Barbara Macchiaroli, whose longtime companion died of the virus the day after Easter, outside her home in Huntington, N.Y. on April 23. (JOHNNY MILANO / NYT)

 

An assortment of sympathy cards Barbara Macchiaroli has received so far from friends and family at her home in Huntington, N.Y.  (JOHNNY MILANO / NYT)
An assortment of sympathy cards Barbara Macchiaroli has received so far from friends and family at her home in Huntington, N.Y. (JOHNNY MILANO / NYT)

She usually spends time looking at the images and the inscriptions, trying to find the right message. On this trip to the store, wearing gloves and a mask, she barely read what the cards said because she was afraid to handle them.

The cards went to families of people whom she believes died of the virus — a friend, two men in a nursing home, and a friend’s mother. She mailed seven in a single day.

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“I was down to one more,” she said. “Then someone else died.”

This month, Macchiaroli has also been receiving sympathy cards. Her longtime companion died of the virus the day after Easter in a nursing home. He was 90. They haven’t had a funeral, but the cards — 34 so far — have been arriving at her house every day. The senders have written about memories of his beautiful singing voice, his devotion to the local Kiwanis Club and his love of Ford Model A’s.

“The cards have comforted me in a way I never expected they would,” she said. “I think it is because I can’t be with people right now.”

For some, the upending of their card-sending rituals has been another cruel outcome of the virus.

Deb Toye-Sweppenheiser was grieving this month when she visited a Winn Dixie supermarket in Marco Island, Florida. Her 79-year-old aunt, who lived in Hillsborough, New Jersey, had passed away from the coronavirus and she wanted to send cards to her family, including at least five cousins.

But the shelves of sympathy cards were empty and the scale of the pandemic hit her anew. She posted a picture of the card display on Facebook, expressing her shock with the remark, “Not fake news people are dying.”

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When she asked an employee about the cards, she was told the store couldn’t keep them in stock.

“You heard about the toilet paper, you heard about the paper towels, you heard about the water,” said Toye-Sweppenheiser, 57, who runs a used-car lot in Factoryville, Pennsylvania. “But the cards.”

Toye-Sweppenheiser said she always braces herself before shopping for greeting cards. It can be a painful reminder of losing her brother, father and mother at a young age and the death of her husband in 2008. But the ritual is core to her life.

“I am from that generation, when someone passes away or somebody graduates or has a big birthday, it is just part of my era to go and get those cards and acknowledge them that way,” she said.

Some card designers are surprised by which cards are selling out. Ann Peterson, a designer in Buffalo who sells her cards online, said her best-selling card these days has an image of an angel with her forehead pressed into her arm.

“My mother-in-law once told me the picture was too sad,” Peterson said. She sold 100 of them in the past month.

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Avalos, the card seller in California, said her most popular card was an image of a trail of footprints in the sand. She took the photo while walking on the beach with her husband.

“I say a prayer for every person who orders one,” she said.

Paul Mattox, who co-owns an Etsy shop with his wife that sells cards from Springfield, Utah, has been writing out sympathy cards by hand and mailing them for people who are worried about leaving their homes. It is a new request for the shop, which has not advertised such a service.

“I’ve sent several from business executives to employees or their employees’ families,” he said. “I’ve sent others from teachers to students regarding their parents.”

On Long Island, New York, this month, Erik Anderson bought one of the last sympathy cards on the shelf at a Stop & Shop.

It was for his wife, whose youngest sister died of the virus at age 57. She was one of seven siblings from an Irish Catholic family, none of whom could be with her when she was taken off the ventilator.

Erik Anderson, who bought a sympathy card for his wife, and whose youngest sister died of the virus at age 57, in his office in Bohemia, N.Y. Anderson said just talking to his wife didn’t seem adequate. (JOHNNY MILANO / NYT)
Erik Anderson, who bought a sympathy card for his wife, and whose youngest sister died of the virus at age 57, in his office in Bohemia, N.Y. Anderson said just talking to his wife didn’t seem adequate. (JOHNNY MILANO / NYT)

Anderson, 58, acknowledged that giving a sympathy card to someone you live with “might seem weird,” but just talking to his wife didn’t seem adequate.

The inscription in the card he picked out was “close enough” to what he wanted to say, but he added his own thoughts also, filling up the inside. He left the card on his wife’s dresser for her to read when she woke up one morning.

“She lost her baby sister,” Anderson said. “Speaking words is important. But sometimes you have to write them down.”