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Web users pay price to send e-greetings

AmericanGreetings.com is charging members a fee for unlimited access to e-cards on its sites, including Egreetings Network and Blue Mountain Arts.

Procrastination on holiday cards could cost you this year: Some e-greeting services that were once quick, free alternatives to envelopes and stamps are starting to charge fees.

AmericanGreetings.com sent notices to members this week saying it will charge $11.95 annually for access to its e-mail greeting card service. The company is also charging the membership fee at its other sites, including Egreetings Network and Blue Mountain Arts, which AmericanGreetings acquired from Excite@Home in September for $35 million.

"To make sure that we can continue to bring you the best greetings and all of the convenient features of AmericanGreetings.com for years to come, we must now charge a very small membership fee," AmericanGreetings' notice read. The company added that it would still offer a "special selection" of everyday cards for free.

AmericanGreetings could not be immediately reached for comment.

Betty Yeh, an Internet analyst for Web site measurement firm Nielsen/NetRatings, said sending online greetings is a "very significant activity on the Web." In October, Flowgo.com received 12.96 million unique visitors, followed by Blue Mountain with 12.95 million, AmericanGreetings.com with 9.6 million, Hallmark.com with 3.3 million and Egreetings with 2.3 million.

AmericanGreetings follows in the footsteps of other online sites, such as Yahoo, Salon.com and Britannica.com, that have slowly evolved from purely free services to ones that are paid. Yeh said that although AmericanGreetings has brand-name connections with the paper-card business as well as a loyal following with consumers, it remains to be seen whether its paid service will be a success.

see special report: Death of the free web To entice paying customers, AmericanGreetings is letting members design greetings, add photos, create an address book, and set e-mail reminders for important events. As an added incentive, the company said it will offer three accounts for the price of one so members can share their membership with two other people.

"AmericanGreetings.com is sitting on a goldmine," said Yeh. "But whether they can tap into that...may be tricky."