Valentine's Day goo clogs Net

It's Valentine's Day again, and millions of couples are choosing to spend it in a rather unlikely place-the Internet.

It might not sound romantic, but large numbers of people are finding a variety of reasons for flocking to Web sites, 3-D chat rooms, and online stores ahead of Saturday's festival of love. Electronic-greetings vendors such as Hallmark and Greet Street expect to send out several million e-mail Valentine's cards this year. A variety of sites allow users to choose from a selection of greeting-card-like images and send them-along with a message-to any e-mail address.

But the flip side to all this cyber sentiment is that holidays such as St. Valentine's Day take their toll on network speed. Indeed, in the run-up to the holiday, home pages were taking up to several minutes to load, bogged down by last-minute orders, according to the online stores. The traffic also slowed down Net bottlenecks such as corporate e-mail gateways.

But despite these clogged Internet arteries, all this activity gives heart to electronic-greeting makers, who hope to tap into some of the $7 billion greeting-card market.

Greet Street started up just as the Internet was becoming popular, in 1994, and went on to found America Online's first electronic greetings store, then called Card-O-Matic, just before last year's Valentine's Day. Greet Street launched on the Web last summer, after Card-O-Matic was taken over by rival American Greetings, and in December pulled in a $6 million investment from Gibson Greetings. Gibson is the third-largest greeting card maker, after Hallmark and AG.

Now Greet Street is hawking its wares on the Web, through such high-profile distribution partners as search engine Excite and Hotmail, Microsoft Corp.'s free e-mail service. Greet Street had already shipped 200,000 e-greetings a day before Valentine's, and expected to send out another several hundred thousand over the weekend - roughly 10 times more than it sent last year through Card-O-Matic.

Greet Street co-founder Tony Levitan said one of the biggest draws for his "e-greetings" (a Greet Street trademark) is convenience. "That's one of the benefits of being online. Guys will wake up tomorrow, and their wife or sweetheart will say, 'Where's my valentine?' " Levitan said. "And he can say 'just a minute,' and go to the computer, and five minutes later, waiting in her e-mail box will be an e-greeting from us."

Another big factor sending people online is that non-virtual card stores are almost sure to run out of stock on Feb. 14, Levitan said. Greet Street offers about 1,200 cards for 50 cents each, 130 of which are Valentines.

Greet Street has drawn some hefty competition from Hallmark and American Greetings, both of which started significant electronic ventures last year. American Greetings now operates AOL's e-card shop, and Hallmark launched an online store in November. Hallmark says it offers about the same number of cards as Greet Street, but doesn't charge for most of them, hoping merely to draw consumers to the site. Hallmark would not release Valentine's circulation figures.

None of these ventures is profitable yet. Most of the cards Greet Street sends out are from its small selection of free cards. But Greet Street is encouraging users to sign up for paid e-greetings with a contest and other promotions.

Greet Street's e-greetings take up about 20KB of space. But Hallmark sells animated cards, in addition to its full complement of static graphics, and at more than 200KB, these are the types of items that drive system administrators to distraction.

E-mail messages must pass through gateways to move from the Internet to the servers of an ISP or a corporate network, and when big attachments hit the bottleneck, they can push out business e-mail and crash servers, according to technology service workers.

Those responsible for maintaining large corporate networks were struggling to keep their e-mail gateways from clogging up in the week before Valentine's. At one large, information-driven company, the e-mail gateway had to be shut down temporarily while technical staff cleared out bulky electronic novelties from still images to animated cartoons.

Seasonal chain-letters were also popular. One letter contained a short, sentimental story, urging readers to forward the epistle to several friends. Failure to comply, however, would result in "bad luck for at least five years."

Online communities organized events of their own. One of the strangest must be "Virtual Vows," an event hosted by and promoted by Excite, which allowed users to take on the form of a 3-D avatar and exchange wedding vows inside a virtual chapel.

Presumably the vows would not be legally binding outside the borders of cyberspace.

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