At John Lewis, for example, a spokesman said his store did not provide information on its packs about the amount of money that would be going to charity, but: 'We provide the information to our stationery department who can pass it on to customers who want to know.'
It turns out that for an eight- card pack costing pounds 1.15, each card raises 1.4p for charities such as Oxfam or Barnardo's. From next spring, however, customers will know without having to ask. Along with all other stores, John Lewis will be obliged under the Charities Act 1992 to state on the pack the proportion of the retail price that will reach the charity.
Although many stores already do so - Sainsbury's, for example, tells its customers that 30p per pack of 10 cards costing pounds 2.99 will go to the charity - the legislation is expected to focus stores' attention on whether they are donating as much as the public expects.
Hilary Blume, director of the Charities Advisory Trust, said: 'The charities should not let their names go too cheaply. They should realise that it's their name that is helping to sell the cards, and they should ask for more. I would like to see the setting up of a charity standard which would stipulate an absolute minimum of 10 per cent, but aiming at between 15 and 20 per cent.'
The role played by large retail stores does have its benefits. Neville Bass, director of the Charity Christmas Card Council, said he would like everyone to buy direct from charities but agreed there would always be a 'convenience factor' for customers buying from commercial stationers. Some charities would also be at a loss without the stores. Age Concern, for example, does not print its own cards and relies on stores like Marks & Spencer printing and selling cards on its behalf. By doing so, it avoids the printing and production costs, along with the liability of unsold stock. The 10 per cent cut gave Age Concern a profit of pounds 40,000 last year.
Charities which rely on their own merchandising are playing for bigger profits, but at greater risk. Oxfam says 62 per cent of the cost price in its own shops goes to development and relief work, while other retailers give 47 per cent. 'Because we are large and sell so many cards we can strike a better bargain,' a spokeswoman said.
The risk comes in the production costs. Keith Manley, former finance director of Barnardo's, said a typical cost breakdown of producing pounds 1 worth of cards would be: design and printing, 20p; warehousing, marketing and distribution, 22p; administration and finance, 5p - leaving a net profit to charity of 53p.
However, only a few charities meet this target. Peter Pascoe, head of sales at Mencap, said his charity received just over 25 per cent from its cards. 'One charity said it made 85p in the pound. That's nonsense. It suggests it costs nothing to distribute the cards. Although we have a lot of voluntary labour, our other costs are the same as any commercial company. Making a comparison is meaningless unless everyone is playing by the same rules. Each charity will calculate their profits from cards in different ways.'
The benefits of charity cards are not just financial, however. Simon Lloyd, appeal director for the Cancer Relief Macmillan Fund, said: 'Last year we sold 1.5 million cards which means that there are 1.5 million households with a greater awareness of CRMF.'
Percentages that the main players take
Oxfam: 62 per cent if bought from Oxfam shops, 47 per cent if from retail shops.
Save the Children Fund: 60-65 per cent.
Cancer Relief Macmillan Fund: 60 per cent if bought direct; 47 per cent if from charity shops.
National Children's Home: 30 per cent.
Card Aid: 25 per cent.
Mencap: 25.5 per cent.
Cancer Research Campaign: 18.75 per cent.
Age Concern: 10 per cent.
Sainsbury: 10 per cent.
John Lewis: 10 per cent.
Boots: 8 per cent.