"We're not selling Hallmark cards here, and that's the whole key," said Tony Levitan, 34, co-founder of the Virtual Mall, which opened Greet Street on America Online and the Internet this month.
The service brings together smaller marketers of upscale, unique greeting cards, including cards designed for gay people.
Cards purchased online can be shipped to the buyer or sent directly to the recipient. Prices range from $1.75 to $3.50, comparable to retail stores. For cards shipped directly, there is no additional fee beyond the price of first-class postage. Overnight delivery is an additional $5.25 option.
"People looking for unusual cards have a hard time finding them all in once place, and here people have unlimited and discreet opportunities to shop for all kinds of cards," Mr. Levitan said.
Greet Street offers 15 card designs on AOL and 40 designs on a World Wide Web home page (http://www.greetst.com). The company plans to quadruple its online card offerings within the next few months.
Such tactics present a challenge to bigger card marketers like American Greetings and Hallmark Cards. Both in recent months have ventured into interactive media, installing personalized-card kiosks in stores and developing online services.
Hallmark tested and abandoned a greeting card service on Prodigy early last year and is now selling about 100 card designs on CompuServe. American Greetings sells online cards via Prodigy.
"We continue to talk to other providers of interactive services and we're exploring ... the Internet," said Curtis Crawford, program director of Hallmark's electronic shopping operations. "It's obviously a hot area and there could be some interesting opportunities to reach new customers."
In the meantime, cyberspace is helping to raise the visibility of companies too small to compete for retail shelf space with Hallmark and American Greetings.
The Virtual Mall was conceived by Mr. Levitan and co-founder Fred Campbell, 39, in 1993.
They first tried to sell cards through a CD-ROM catalog venture called the Merchant, but said they saw greater opportunities in online marketing.
The most popular card Greet Street has sold through AOL is a Valentine's Day design showing a rumpled bed. The message inside reads: "Make me late for work."
Customers can order cards electronically with a credit card; those doubtful about transaction security can call an 800-number. Greet Street expects to adopt a secure platform to process transactions later this year.