- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2001

Businesses from florists to candy shops are cashing in this Valentine's Day as consumers especially those waiting until the last minute are spending more money than ever to buy the perfect gift.

Valentine shoppers plan to spend an average of $84.20 8 percent more than last year, according to an annual Valentine's Day survey by the International Mass Retail Association.

But the day dedicated to romance could cost shoppers as much as 40 percent more than last year and up to 118 percent more than in 1999 depending on how extravagant they plan to be, according to the Edelman Valentine's Day Index conducted by Edelman Financial Services, a financial-planning firm in Fairfax, Va.

While the cost of cards, chocolates and dinner for two at a local restaurant haven't changed much from last year, higher-end items like lingerie from Victoria's Secret and a three-day getaway to the Poconos have skyrocketed.

"The index reflects the marketplace," said Ric Edelman, chairman of Edelman Financial Services. "For example, Victoria's Secret has done a really good job [of increasing] demand. Its presence in the marketplace is very strong."

The index showed lingerie from the Victoria's Secret chain costs $98 this year, compared with $69 last year and $45 in 1999.

Valentine's Day is the first big spending "holiday" since retailers faced not-so-jolly sales during the Christmas shopping season. Although consumer confidence is low, consumer spending has picked up in the new year and that's good news for retailers.

The biggest spenders 18- to 24-year-olds plan to shell out an average of $183.80 on Valentine's Day, according to the International Mass Retail Association. Men plan to spend a lot more than women this year and almost 28 percent more than they spent last year, the survey said.

Roses, a Valentine's Day staple, are likely to be higher this year, thanks to increased gas prices and labor costs.

Stacie Lee Banks, owner of Lee's Flower and Card Shop on U Street NW, is charging $75 for one dozen arranged roses $10 more than last year. She's also increased delivery costs from $5 to $6.50.

"Gas prices are hurting us," Ms. Banks said. "We'll have nine trucks out on Valentine's Day. That's a lot of gas."

Customers don't seem to mind the price increase, though. As of yesterday, the shop had taken 200 flower orders and Ms. Banks expects at least 100 more to come in before the end of the day tomorrow.

Valentine's Day is the fourth-largest flower-giving holiday behind Christmas, Mother's Day and Easter, according to the Society of American Florists. Last year, the average price for a dozen arranged roses was about $67 4 percent higher than in 1999.

Assortments of chocolates are flying off the shelves at Chocolate Chocolate, a tiny candy store at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and L Street NW in the District.

The most popular: Lake Champlain's 11-ounce heart-shaped boxes full of Belgian chocolates, which cost $33, and Joseph Schmidt's velvet and hand-painted boxes full of truffles at $35, said Ginger Park Redman, one of the shop's owners.

Ms. Redman estimates the shop does at least 25 times more business on Valentine's Day than on a non-holiday. The busiest day of the year draws lines out the door of last-minute shoppers.

"They mean business," Ms. Redman said. "They know they can't go home empty-handed."

"Historically, it's crazy on the 13th and on the 14th its twice as bad," she said. "Valentine's Day is what we call 'the assault.' "

Prices at Chocolate Chocolate are no higher than last year's prices, but people are spending more.

"In the old days, it was one box per customer," Ms. Redman said. "But now chocolate is not just for your lover. It's for your kids. It's for your kid's teachers."

In fact, Valentine's Day has increasingly become a day for people to show friends, relatives and co-workers they care, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation. About 42 percent of those asked said they see Valentine's Day as a reason to give a gift to someone other than a romantic interest.

But the high cost of some Valentine's Day gifts could result in financial problems if people spend too much, Mr. Edelman said.

"People tend to spend money on things they don't need … and not [put it into] savings," he said. "Clearly, all these items are unnecessary."

"I would much rather see people make a homemade card that comes from the heart then spend the money at a retail shop," Mr. Edelman said.

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