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.
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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.