Love is big business. In the UK alone last year, total retail spending on Valentine’s Day was estimated at £980m on cards, gifts, flowers, food and drink. We’ve come a long way from Lupercalia, the fertility festival of ancient Rome which appears to be the origin of this celebration.
We really have Pope Galasius to thank for the modern-day consumerist splurge. He is supposed to have declared the first St Valentine’s Day on February 14 496AD, matching the traditional time of the pagan Roman celebration. But it is a gruesome tale that lies at its heart.
According to some stories, the day was in memory of Valentine of Rome, a young priest martyred after defying Emperor Claudius II in 270AD by conducting illegitimate wedding ceremonies in the capital. He was jailed and eventually beheaded, but not before falling in love with the jailer’s daughter. It is believed that on the evening of his execution the young priest passed her a note which read “from your Valentine”. Something to consider when you wrap your meagre box of chocolates.
Something close to our own Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written Valentine’s didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known Valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt.
Money started being made in earnest during the 19th century, the industrial revolution ushered in factory-made Valentine cards and in Kansas City in 1913, Hallmark Cards began mass production.
You might think that this marked the end for St Valentine’s Day as a genuinely romantic event. The day is now transformed into just another opportunity for retailers to take our hard-earned cash with an annual guilt trip – more to do with obligation than to do with love. In fact, the giving of cards has blossomed into the defining tradition of Valentine’s Day, and a century later, an estimated one billion cards globally are sent every year.
In the midst of all, many consumers have developed a negative perception of the occasion. More than three-quarters of UK consumers surveyed in 2015 by retail research firm Verdict Retail thought Valentine’s Day had become too commercial. Over half felt that it was just a waste of money.
This confirms the findings of a 2013 UK Retail Occasions Report when almost a third of consumers indicated they had spent less that Valentine’s than in previous years. A high proportion of consumers placed very little personal importance to the occasion.
In fact, in February 2016, just under half of UK consumers (47.2%) chose to do nothing to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
Despite such levels of apathy, Valentine’s Day 2016 saw a slight year-on-year rise in the number of consumers who marked the occasion in some way, although the percentage of those that spent less than the previous year was still high at 22.8%. It is notable that enthusiasm was markedly higher among younger, 18 to 34-year-old consumers, with a purchase penetration of over 60% in gifts (compared with overall purchase penetration of 46.4%). The fresh-faced are not so jaded, perhaps, and might remain the best bet for retailers eager to keep this post-Christmas sales boost fuelled for the future.
Of course, the best advice to offer consumers is to recall the Beatles’ suggestion that Money Can’t Buy Me Love and seek to make your feelings clear without resorting to novelty mugs, extravagant bouquets or er … Valentine’s toilet paper.
But if we look further afield, it’s not lovers but the lovelorn that actually fuel the world’s biggest online retail spending spree. “Singles Day”, which takes place in China on November 11 every year, started as an obscure “anti-Valentine’s” celebration in the 1990s, but in 2016 generated staggering sales of US$17.8 billion.
So perhaps UK retailers shouldn’t continue to target increasingly impoverished, cynical couples on February 14, but switch tack to follow China’s example. Invent a day for singles, and pursue them instead.
- Nelson Blackley Research Associate, Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University
Nelson Blackley is a Research Associate at the National Retail Research Knowledge Exchange Centre.