As its name suggests, Current — the Colorado Springs greeting card, paper products and gift company — is not a thing of the past.
In fact, far from it — even though its origins date back nearly 75 years.
In 1950, artist and lithographer Orin Loo and his wife, Miriam, launched Current from their home on the city’s southwest side, where they produced and sold greeting cards, recipe cards, stationery, post-it notes and scores of other paper products and mailed them directly to customers who ordered from old-style catalogs.
Over the next three-plus decades after its launch, the Loos, later joined by sons Dusty and Gary, grew Current into a giant in the world of direct-to-consumer marketing, with sales that topped more than $300 million during its 1980s peak, according to Gazette archives. The company became one of the most successful home-grown businesses in city history.
“We were the only one that was selling by catalog direct to consumers,” said Jon Medved, a former Current president and executive in the direct-marketing industry. “Just like Amazon does now.”
After years of success, however, changing times created an air of uncertainty for Current.
The Loos sold the company in 1986, which was followed by more ownership changes. Regent, a Beverly Hills, Calif., private equity firm whose investments include retail, media and technology, most recently bought Current in 2015 from the Taylor Corp., a Minnesota-based printing giant that had purchased it in 1998.
Current also went through several rounds of downsizings and layoffs, which resulted, in part, because customers had abandoned greeting cards for digital messages they could send via text, email and social media.
The company once occupied 660,000 square feet of plant and office space at a 77-acre property it purchased in the 1970s at Interstate 25 and Woodmen Road on the Springs’ north side, and at one point employed as many as 2,600 full-time and seasonal workers, according to Gazette archives.
Now, Current operates out of 188,000 square feet at the I-25 and Woodmen site. Its workforce numbers 160, though it doubles in size beginning around September in preparation for the holidays, which is the busiest time of the year for sales, Current officials say.
But a smaller operation doesn’t mean Current no longer is relevant; in fact, it remains an active player in the world of direct marketing sales.
Current has used new equipment and technological advances to do more with less, company officials say.
Previous owner Taylor Corp. had added Colorful Images, which sells personalized paper products, and Lillian Vernon, the gift, decor and household goods direct marketer started in 1951 by its namesake founder, to the Current portfolio of brands; Regent then added FineStationery, a paper products seller, to the Current lineup when it purchased the company.
The four brands now operate under a single corporate identity, known as Current Media Group — though a “great majority” of sales are products under the Current flag, said Wendy Heck, Current Media Group’s CEO.
“We are strong and we are growing and we have been able to stay relevant to our customers,” she said. “We keep evolving as a company and we will continue to change with the market and what our customers want and need. We do really well and we still are affordable and a fun way of staying connected with customers.”
When the Loos were inducted into the Colorado Business Hall of Fame in 2009, a family history described a 1984 Current Christmas catalog that offered more than 800 products for sale; today, Current’s website features more than 13,000 products across the Current, Lillian Vernon, Colorful Images and FineStationery brands that translate into the sale of millions of items each year, Heck said.
The company’s paper product line that started with greeting cards and stationery also features graduation, get well, birthday and other all-occasion cards, calendars, journals, stickers, address labels, notebooks, file folders, notepads and checks, among other products — most of which continue to be designed, manufactured and shipped directly to customers by Current from its north-side Colorado Springs production facility.
Current’s thick, “peek-proof” gift wrapping paper also is a popular product, Heck said. Some wrapping paper styles are designed by Current and other styles are added from other sources; once designed, the paper is shipped to Current in giant rolls and fed into a machine that produces individual, pre-wrapped rolls.
Gifts and lifestyle products — coffee mugs, beer glasses, whiskey chests, games, toys, ornaments, beach towels, flashlights, hammers and cutting boards, among many others — also are a big part of Current’s lineup of products. Current doesn’t manufacture those products, but buys them from domestic and international sources, Heck said.
To stay connected with its customers, Current had made significant changes to its operations over the years, she said.
When Current started, Orin Loo designed the company’s greeting cards, according to the family’s Colorado Business Hall of Fame history. Today, a team of five to 10 designers does the work at a bank of computer screens, though some of them might hand-sketch designs.
As recently as 2005, Current used a half-dozen large lithograph printing presses to publish its cards and other paper products, Heck said.
By early 2017, Current installed two state-of-the-art digital printers to replace the lithograph presses, and added a third this year, Heck said. The digital printers allowed Current to expand its offerings to the over 13,000 products, she said; the space-saving printers each are about one-third the size of a lithograph press and can handle a variety of printing jobs simultaneously in less time, Heck said.
“These machines allowed us to shorten up the footprint,” said Rose Young, Current’s operations director. “The presses before used to be one for this whole room. Now we’ve got, like, three presses in one room.”
The digital printers help Current keep its prices affordable, Heck said. And they’re so advanced that they can publish a single greeting card — and personalize it with a customer’s message, she said. The cost? Just $2.99 each, if you buy two or more.
“That just tells you the power and the breadth and depth of digital, and how far we’ve come,” she said.
The personalization and customization process doesn’t stop at paper products; names and messages can be added to gifts and lifestyle products, such as mugs, hammers and cutting boards. “Jason is the Daddio of the Patio,” according to a barbecue glove personalized for a Father’s Day recipient.
In fact, the personalization and customization of cards, paper products and gifts has become vital to Current’s offerings, Heck said.
“For our product lines, you have your traditional occasion cards that have done very well in the past, your birthday, and your sympathy and your Christmas cards,” she said.
“We have all that. We also have nontraditional occasions. We’re building upon that. Those are ‘just because’ cards. Blank cards where you can add your own (messages). … Through the pandemic, I think a lot of us wanted inspiration and humor and just being able to send a card just to say, ‘you got this’ to someone. Or, ‘how are you doing.’ Or ‘I’m here for you. I support you.’ All of those things, you have to pivot and stay relevant and follow those things in the market and we’ve been able to do that.”
In the old days, customers thumbed through Current’s popular catalogs and called the company or mailed in their orders. Today, more than 80% of orders come via Current’s website, Heck said; about 20 employees — which more than doubles during the holiday rush — answer phones at its on-site call center and take most of the rest of customer orders. A few still come in by mail, she said.
Driving traffic to its website is key, and Current uses a number of avenues, Heck said. It tries to get its name and web address in front of customers via postcards and letters, while company fliers, postcards and ads also are inserted into the outgoing merchandise shipments of other businesses with whom Current partners.
Current also pays to advertise on Google and social media sites, conducts email and mobile text marketing and partners with coupon sites.
And don’t forget the catalogs.
“We still mail a lot of catalogs, a lot of postcards, a lot of letters,” Heck said. “We still do catalog requests.”
Updates also have come to its order fulfillment process.
A “picking system” used to fill orders previously required a Current employee to read a printed list of products purchased by a customer, hunt for them among picking racks that resemble tall shelving units, grab items out of merchandise bins and place them into a cardboard box before it’s packaged and shipped.
That picking system was automated in 2001 to improve accuracy and speed, said Young, the operations director.
Now, an employee who stands in front of a picking rack watches as red lights flash to indicate which merchandise bin to pick from and how many items to pick; customers who buy from Current average about six items per order, all of which are loaded into a single box, Heck said.
“In the past, you’d look into a box at the pick ticket, read it and then grab the product from a pick bin and … and have to pick the stuff and put it in a box,” Young said “Right now, the light tells them what to pick and where to pick. They don’t have to read anything. It’s really … been a time saver.”
Scanners read bar codes that are affixed to boxes — which are assembled by Current’s in-house box-making machines — and send them to different parts of the plant via a conveyor system, which also was added in 2001, Young said.
Eventually, that same conveyor system sends boxes with completed orders to a quality control area, where employees check them for accuracy before packing them up and adding address labels for shipping.
Those boxes then move along the conveyor system to a receiving and departing area and are automatically fed into a truck trailer, where packages are picked up nightly by Federal Express.
“We still do everything we used to do,” Heck said. “We’ve just really optimized, and with technology and how the marketplace is evolved, it’s just changed. We’ve changed with it.”
Current’s business might sound like a mini-Amazon, though Heck and Young say they’d prefer to focus on what their company does and not compare it to anyone else.
“We want to stand alone in what we do and how long we’ve been doing it,” Heck said.
That history goes back to the company’s bread-and-butter greeting cards designed by Orin Loo. But some people don’t embrace cards the way they did in the past.
IBISWorld, a New York-based global research firm, posted online statistics that showed the greeting card industry and other publishing businesses have seen their share of the U.S. market decline by average of 2.9% a year between 2017 and 2022.
A 2022 survey of greeting card industry retailers, however, showed that 54% of respondents saw greeting card and stationery sales increase that year from the previous year, according to the nonprofit, Aurora-based Greeting Card Association, which partnered on the survey with Stationery Trends, a greeting card and stationery industry publication.
So, does Current still believe in the power of greeting cards? Very much so, said Heck.
“You’re really expressing an emotion and communicating a feeling when you give that card,” she said. “For the recipient and the person sending it, from the design, from the words, the words you add, to me you’re telling them you value your relationship and you value that person. When they get it, it evokes joy, happiness. It tells someone that I care about you. … For us, it’s very different than emails and texts. The power of that we think is truly amazing. And we continue to build on that.”