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Are business cards a thing of the past?

LOS ANGELES — Chalk up another looming casualty of the Internet age: business cards.

Ubiquitous as pinstripes, the 2- by 3.5-inch pieces of card stock have long been a staple in executive briefcases. Exchanging cards helps to break the ice and provides a quick reference for forgotten names.

But to many young and Web-savvy people who are accustomed to connecting digitally, the cards are irrelevant, wasteful — and just plain lame.

Diego Berdakin, the founder of BeachMint Inc., a fast-growing Santa Monica, Calif., e-commerce site, has raised $75 million from investors without ever bothering to print up a set. He doesn't see the point.

"If someone comes in to meet me, we've already been connected through email, so it really doesn't feel like a necessity in my life," he said. "When I go into a meeting and there are five bankers across the table, they all hand me business cards and they all end up in a pile, in a shoebox somewhere."

U.S. sales of business cards have been falling since the late 1990s, according to IBISWorld Inc., an Australian business data company whose data go back to 1997. The slide appears to be accelerating. Last year printers posted revenue of $211.1 million from the segment. That's down 13 percent from 2006.

The weak economy has been a factor in recent years. But analysts said printed business cards, like newspapers, books and magazines, are fast giving way to digital alternatives. Smartphones, tablets and social media are helping people connect more quickly and seamlessly than ever before.

"It's a steady decline," said Caitlin Moldvay, a printing industry analyst with IBISWorld. "The printing industry in general has entered into a decline, so this is part of that trend."

Many under-30 tech entrepreneurs see the paper rectangles as an anachronism, so they are turning to digital options.

About 85 million people have a professional network on LinkedIn. Some 77 million smartphone users have downloaded the Bump app, which allows them to bump their phones together and instantly exchange contact information.

Others carry a personalized quick-response code that smartphones can scan like a hyperlink. And, of course, there's always Facebook, email and digital business cards.

If they do take a paper card, some said they use a smartphone app to snap a picture of it and instantly digitize the card's information. Then they toss it into the nearest trash can.

"Paper is not so appealing to this generation," said Kit Yarrow, chairwoman of the psychology department at Golden Gate University in San Francisco who has studied Generation Y, the 20- to 30-year-olds who grew up with the Internet. "They absolutely gravitate toward products that help them do things really efficiently. It's time-consuming to organize business cards — and not portable."

Sam Friedman, co-founder and chief executive of Parking in Motion, which sells a mobile app for finding open parking spaces, said his Santa Monica firm's digital presence is its most effective communication tool. "The business card is your website," he said.

Still, old habits die hard. Friedman said he makes sure his employees are issued business cards, which sometimes come in handy at conferences.

Other firms that do business abroad, particularly in Asia, have found printed business cards to be crucial to corporate culture and ritual there.

And although the number of U.S. print shops is declining, some are thriving with the help of e-commerce and innovative new designs. Online printer MOO Inc. specializes in "minicards" that are half the standard size to appeal to eco-conscious entrepreneurs. Others are peddling plastic business cards equipped with flash drives that companies can hand out as promotional freebies.

But one of the most successful firms, Vistaprint, keeps it relatively simple. The Netherlands company allows customers to create personalized business cards using online templates or their own digital designs. Businesses on a budget can get as many as 250 cards free of charge.

The company posted sales of $452.8 million in North America last year, up 17.9 percent from 2010. Spokeswoman Wendy Cebula said that business cards account for about 30 percent of Vistaprint's product revenue and that most of its customers are small businesses.

"We're just not seeing that electronic medium replace (printed business cards)," she said. "We see them as complements as opposed to substitutes."

Are business cards a thing of the past? 03/27/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 5:30am]

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