- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

C’mon, admit it.

You spent a little less on Mother’s Day this year, didn’t you?

“I normally buy cards for a lot of my friends, but I’ve decided to cut down on my card list this year,” said Lynette Robinson, a 54-year-old mother of two in Baltimore, as she shopped last week at a Hallmark store in the District’s L’Enfant Plaza.

“I hate to cut people out, but with the price of cards, you can go overboard,” she said. “I’m checking out the 99-cent cards.”

Given we are in the worst economic downturn in generations, she won’t be surprised if some of her friends drop her from their lists, too.

“If I don’t get as many cards as I normally do, I’ll understand. My feelings will not be hurt.”

But providers of cards, flowers and brunches for moms will feel the pain.

Americans are expected to spend nearly 11 percent less this Mother’s Day than they did last year, a recent survey suggests, but daughters, friends and godmothers will bear the brunt of the cuts.

About 83 percent of us will observe Mother’s Day, spending an average of $123 per person versus $139 last year, according to a survey for the National Retail Federation (NRF) conducted by BIGresearch.

Total Mother’s Day spending is projected to exceed $14 billion this year, according to the survey, enough to bail out a medium-size bank. Spending on flowers is expected to fall 5 percent to $1.9 billion.

“Retailers understand that people are on strict budgets, even for important holidays,” said Tracy Mullin, chief executive officer of the NRF. “Budget-friendly gift ideas will abound.”

The gift industry may understand, but it helps if the wife does, too.

The recession “certainly affects what I spend,” said Tony Carter, 51, a Department of Energy employee from Damascus, who was shopping at the L’Enfant Plaza Hallmark for his wife, Rodecia. His government work may be steady, but his 401(k) balance and home equity have been slashed.

“I am fortunate to have a wife who is an outstanding mother to our two kids,” he said. “She knows where my heart is and that I would do more if I could.”

Not everyone is cutting back, though.

“I know times are a little tight, but I find I’m spending a little more for my mom and my daughter,” said John Snowden, a 72-year-old D.C. resident who is retired from the National Security Agency. “I’m a softie for [my daughter],” he said.

Charles Russomanno, 49, a Department of Energy engineer from Falls Church, put it succinctly: “You only have one mother, you know what I’m saying?”

Chocolate seems to be one gift - whether to yourself or someone else - that remains recession-proof. Sales of the mood-lifting treat rose nearly 7 percent in the fiscal year that ended April 19, said Susan Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Confectioners Association’s Chocolate Council.

“It’s a small delight, it doesn’t cost very much to have that indulgence,” she said.

Still, retailers and restaurants are catering to those whose assets have melted down along with the economy.

“People still do plan to celebrate with mom, but in a much simpler way,” said NRF spokeswoman Kathy Grannis. “That can mean personal time with family members or a quiet dinner at home. Instead of large bouquets and sweaters, family members may go in for one big gift from everyone or a simple brunch or dinner.”

Retailer Sears on Wednesday introduced a free online service called givetogether to help cash-strapped gifters pool their resources for a single, larger gift for moms, graduates or anyone else.

Local restaurants are emphasizing affordable entrees, and brunch rather than dinner.

“We just put a bunch of affordable choices on the menu and lowered our profit margin a bit as well,” said Ray Tompkins, general manager of the Big Fish Grille in Crofton, Md., and the Red Sky Steak & Fish House in Laurel.

Easter and Mother’s Day are his two most popular days for brunch, but Easter was a wake-up call this year.

“Brunch exceeded last year, but dinner just dropped off,” he said. “What people did is, they just traded down.”

Anticipating a similar trend, Mr. Tompkins has substantially increased his hours for Mother’s Day brunch, which will be available from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The menu now has 10 entrees priced at $16, and 20 priced at $20 or less.

The largest florist in the nation, 1-800-Flowers.com, followed a similar path on a much bigger scale, offering 30 gifts for less than $30, said founder and chief executive officer Jim McCann.

“There are 82.5 million moms in the U.S., and we won’t rest until they’ve all been recognized,” he said.

Cost-cutting has helped keep the company’s prices down over time, and customers have responded well to this year’s cost-conscious offers, he said.

“Frankly, our rose prices are as cheap as they were 15 or 20 years ago because of what we’ve invested in growing roses all over the world,” Mr. McCann said.

Yet local florists - including those that deliver for 1-800-Flowers - watched Mother’s Day sales wilt last week.

“We are down 25 percent,” Tom Sutton, co-owner of Foxglove Flowers in Alexandria, said Friday. “Who knows what tomorrow will bring, but I don’t see any way we can make up the difference.”

Hallmark is going for moments over money, adding costlier features such as glitter and cut-outs to its basic 99-cent cards.

“We also have recordable cards for $6.99 that are so valuable in terms of brightening someone’s day,” said spokeswoman Sarah Kolell. “We’re hearing from our consumers that those things - memories, less tangible things - have always been important when life is challenging.”

Frances Shaver, a 51-year-old FAA employee and mother of seven from Fredericksburg, Va., agreed.

“I would say you should spend less money but more time” with your mother, she said. “The most precious thing we have is time.”

Mrs. Shaver might not see her family much this year, with her own mother in San Francisco and her children as far away as Honolulu, but the right sentiments can fill the void.

“I would expect a really nice card, with some nice words. That always warms my heart,” she said.

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