NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Valentine's Day is best illustrated in one series of actions: Withdraw from an ATM what you'd usually spend on date night, withdraw that amount again, show it to the person you love most and then flush the entire sum down the nearest toilet.
That's basically the way every U.S. consumer has spent Valentine's Day since Esther Howland imposed the first mass-market Valentine's Day cards on the American public during the 1840s. Now the whole sordid, red-painted affair is a nearly $18 billion industry that trails only Thanksgiving ($30.5 billion) and Christmas ($135 billion) in holiday spending, according to IBISWorld. That's almost $3 billion more than what's spent on Mother's Day. Sorry, mom, but they just met at a bar two months ago and neither of them are getting any younger.
That spending is only going up this year. The National Retail Federation estimates that American suckers ... er ... lovers are about to spend an average of $128 a pop to avoid getting the silent treatment or a stern dressing down. That's a nearly 8.5% increase from last year and includes an average $37 worth of flowers and $72 for a night out. It's a heart-shaped box of lovestruck spending that hides a rancid center of markups and emotional extortion.
The problem is that a few carnation stems from the nearest 7-Eleven just don't cut it on Valentine's Day. The Society of American Florists says 71% of flowers given on Valentine's Day are roses, with 196 million roses grown for Valentine's Day 2011 alone. That's a tough order to fill after Christmas, which sucks up 30% of the year's plant and flower purchases and gives growers only 50 to 70 days to work on the Valentine's Day supply. It doesn't help that Valentine's Day, which ranks third behind Christmas and Mother's Day, with 20% of annual plant and flower volume and 25% of sales, vaults to No. 1 when it comes to sales of fresh flowers. Roughly 36% of all flower volume and 40% of flower revenue comes from Valentine's Day sales.
With 36% of Americans planning to buy flowers for Valentine's Day, according to the NRF, the holiday lead-up becomes a bizarro Black Friday for flower sellers. A dozen roses that sell for an average of little more than $59 in early January suddenly go for closer to $80 the week before Valentine's day, according to the SAF. That's a 33% premium before you've even picked up your date.
Once that happens, even the most thoughtful romantics find themselves hamstrung by holiday restaurant reservations. A finite supply of restaurant seating and a whole lot of demand can turn professional-grade wooing into amateur hour.
The folks at restaurant ratings guide Zagat say spending on a dinner out jumps from $70 for a typical dinner for two to more than $146 on Valentine's Day. Overall, the NRF says Valentine's Day dinner spending will jump from $3.36 billion in 2011 to $3.58 billion this year. On that night, there's no such thing as an old favorite or a hidden gem.
That place with the great roasted chicken you go to every year for your anniversary? Yeah, it's taken the fowl off the menu for a $45 filet mignon. The bistro with the great tomato and basil soup you sneak into on date night? It wants a reservation a week in advance and is swapping out your soup for an iceberg salad. "Special" Valentine's Day menus ease the burden on kitchen staffs, but turn charming restaurant favorites into lobotomized husks of their former selves for the stay-at-home masses who emerge from DVR-driven hibernation for this one winter's night.
And boy, can those saps spend. Restaurant reservation site OpenTable says 93% of the Valentine's Day reservation holders they surveyed plan to either match last year's dinner bill or increase it. Among all diners, 54% plan to shell out $101 to $200. Another 10% plan to clear that $200 bar easily. Unfortunately for regulars, but booking a table the weekend before doesn't drive down cost or demand, either.
"With this Valentine's Day falling on a Tuesday, we are going to see two spikes in restaurant reservations," says Caroline Potter, "chief dining officer" for OpenTable. "About half of diners surveyed anticipate booking a romantic evening on the 14th, while another 26% are choosing to celebrate on Saturday night, Feb. 11."
Unless your last name is Yossarian, though, this isn't a Catch-22. You know the easiest way to show someone you love them on Valentine's Day? Putting some actual thought into it. Being original. Paying attention the other 364 days a year. Want to give someone a special dinner on Valentine's Day? Find out their favorite meal and cook it. Want to make a romantic gesture? Stay away from the roses you awkwardly buy once a year and make a playlist of songs they love or that remind you of them. Buy or rent a copy of the movie you saw on your first date. Take a walk to the spot where you proposed. You know, try.
It's called effort. You can't buy it at a markup, but it yields premium returns without putting you in the poorhouse.