Why Consumers Just Don’t Feel the Love for Valentine’s Day

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Valentine’s Day is a pale, pink shadow of its former self. Once associated with throbbing red passion and romance, today it’s more likely to elicit a sense of obligation, dread or apathy.

The annual Valentine’s Day spending survey from the National Retail Federation (NRF) reveals that 60% of Americans — and 91% of those in relationships — plan to celebrate the holiday to the tune of $18.6 billion. The folks playing along will spend an average of $131 on gifts for spouses, significant others, friends, children, parents, classmates, teachers, pets and co-workers. Average spending is expected to be up around $4 compared with Valentine’s Day last year.

And yet, most of the dozens of consumers I’ve interviewed about Valentine’s Day were tepid, at best, when asked about their feelings for the holiday. Very few thought of Valentine’s Day as a particularly romantic event. Lisa, a 40-ish tax professional, summed it up for many: “For me, I tell my family I love them all the time anyway. The Valentines are to make sure they don’t wonder why they didn’t get one. It feels forced, but you kind of have to do it.”

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The three most common responses I heard from consumers concerning Valentine’s Day can be categorized essentially as “I don’t care,” “I feel obligated” and “I feel left out.” I can’t recall anyone saying anything close to: “It’s my favorite day of the year.”

Many people in relationships aren’t inspired to participate in the holiday because of romance, but simply because they feel they must. They’ll spend heavily to ensure there are no hurt feelings. Especially men. While gender neutrality is on the rise, Valentine’s Day is apparently still mostly a man’s job. According to the NRF survey, men will spend more than twice as much as women on their sweethearts. Men will average $108 on gifts for their spouses or significant others, while women will spend $53.

Guys seem to spend handsomely mainly to avoid being in the doghouse with their partner. When I asked eight middle-aged, married businessmen at a Toronto airport lounge about Valentine’s Day gifts for their wives, there were groans and eye rolls all around. Yet all were of the opinion that a gift was obligatory. “Just to make sure” was the most common reason given for buying a gift.

Even men who are peeved with Valentine’s Day participate. Rafael, a 50-ish limo driver, told me that the holiday is “for amateurs.” “It’s a rip-off holiday,” he says. “They jack up the prices at all the restaurants, flowers, everything is more expensive.” So will he be giving something to his wife of 20-plus years on Valentine’s Day? Of course! “I’ll get her something to wear, I guess.”

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Adam, a 31-year-old electronics installer I spoke with this week, doesn’t really care about Valentine’s Day itself, but takes advantage of the holiday as an opportunity to get on the good side of his sweetie. “My lady and I might go somewhere overnight,” he says. “We’ve been together seven years now, though, so it’s not like I have something to prove. Still, you don’t want to miss an opportunity to score points.”

Many women swear that the holiday doesn’t mean that much. “It’s nice, but it’s not a big deal,” says Isabel, 23. Still, she admitted the pressure is mostly on guys, and that she likes being pampered. “You can be equal and still want to be treated like a princess once in a while.”

Caroline, 36, is one of many who refer to Valentine’s Day “a Hallmark holiday.” “It’s a made-up marketing thing,” she says. She expects her husband will give her “some gummy hearts and a bouquet of flowers like last year,” which she says is nice, but not necessary. “I tell him he doesn’t have to get me anything but he wants to. It’s sweet. He’s great. But is it romantic? I don’t really look at it that way.”

While people in relationships tend to view the holiday with feelings of obligation or apathy, Valentine’s Day can be a real bummer for singles. However contrived and forced, the holiday can serve as a nasty reminder of what some singles want but don’t have, or just a day when they simply feel like they’re missing out. “I think it actually makes a lot of single people feel bad,” Caroline says. Her friend Nancy, 36, told me she’s happy to be single, but doesn’t like the scene on the bus ride home from work around Valentine’s Day. “There are always all these guys with their bouquets of flowers. You can’t help but feel left out.”

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Indeed, many singles wish Valentine’s Day would just go away. “I hate it when the flowers show up for my co-workers and I don’t get any, it feels bad,” says Francis, a 40-something assistant manager. A 24-year-old single woman named Jana is planning an at-home-movie Valentine’s night with a group of similarly statused friends. “Yes, there will be wine,” she jokes. This is the first in several years that Jana hasn’t had a boyfriend on Valentine’s Day. “I didn’t understand why my friends hated it so much. They’d say ‘Valentine’s Day is stupid, I can’t wait until it’s over.’ Now I get it. You’re just surrounded by couples.”

It’s understandable, then, that there’s been such a push to expand Valentine’s Day beyond the realm of romance. Valentine’s spending on sweethearts will actually decrease a bit this year. Overall spending will be up because the holiday has gone to the dogs — and cats, friends, co-workers, parents, teachers and kids. According to the NRF, we’ll spend $815 million this year just on our pets. Consumers are increasingly inclined to purchase dog cookies decorated to look like a box of chocolates, heart-shaped pencil cups for office buddies and so on. The trend has been in place for several years now. Much of this is due to ramped-up efforts on the part of marketers and retailers. It’s also because consumers simply don’t want to have anyone they love, like and just are happy to work with feeling left out.

Yarrow chairs the psychology department of Golden Gate University and was named the university’s 2012 Outstanding Scholar for her research in consumer behavior. She is a co-author of Gen BuY and is a frequent speaker on topics related to consumer psychology and Generation Y