A resurgence in spending by the luxury consumer is expected to benefit stores that sell accessories, jewelry and apparel.
And even the average shopper may be inclined to splurge for a day typically associated with pricier gifts. Men, who outnumber women 2-to-1 in buying for the holiday, are expected to spend $150 to $200 on average.
Shoppers kept local jewelers busy over the last couple of weekends, and store operators said they were expecting the rush to continue for last-minute customers.
"It's a big day. We do have larger sales during Valentine's Day," said Peggy Coleman, general manager of Nelson Coleman Jewelers in Towson, a fifth-generation, family-run business that counts on February for about 7 percent of annual sales. The store saw growth in December, another key month, and expects the momentum to continue for Valentine's Day sales, Coleman said.
"Consumer confidence is coming back," she said. "People put off buying for a few years and are ready to buy some more pieces again."
Diamond engagement rings have been selling especially well at a time of year that has become one of the most popular for engagements. Coleman said popular items have been the "hearts on fire" diamonds, which are perfectly cut round stones; sterling silver jewelry; and estate jewelry.
Nationwide, retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus and others in the luxury segment have shown strong sales growth over the past 18 months. And, worldwide, sales of luxury branded goods jumped 10 percent to $252 billion in 2011, the second year of double-digit growth, according to a luxury goods market study by Bain & Co.
High-end consumers "really shut down their spending during the beginning of the recession, and shopping was seen [as being] in bad taste," said D. Brooks Kitchel, Baltimore-based global managing partner in the consumer group of Kurt Salmon.
"That lasted for a period of time, but people naturally like to consume, and since they have the means they've started again," he continued. "This is certainly the strongest we've seen in recent memory for Valentine's Day."
Valentine's Day is now the third-biggest holiday for many jewelers, after Christmas and Mother's Day, said Rhoula Monios, senior sales manager for Smyth Jewelers in Timonium. The Pandora customized charm bracelet line has been a big seller for the store, and diamond pendants and heart-shaped jewelry have been popular as well, she said.
"We're seeing the market change," Monios said, adding that "2009 was a difficult year for everyone."
"But things are absolutely coming back strong," she continued. "People are just tired of worrying about everything that's happening all over the world."
Michael Dart, a senior partner at Kurt Salmon who leads the firm's private equity and strategy practice and the co-author of "The New Rules of Retail," says that despite bad global economic news, consumers are now spending at unprecedented levels.
Middle-class shoppers are worried about the economy but not enough to give up favorite brands, Dart says. And, he wrote in a December report for the firm, high-income earners have returned to pre-recession spending habits.
"These consumers want the opulence of their beloved brands, without compromise, and they have the means to afford it," he wrote.
Dart also noted that, regardless of income, all consumers have an abundance of retail choices.
At Nelson Coleman, that has meant working harder than ever to keep business growing. The jewelry store runs contests and promotions and is involved in social media and charity and community events.
February promotions included a "cutest couple" contest on the store's Facebook page, in which couples tell their engagement stories in a competition for an iPod. The store also offered customers a free bouquet of lilies and roses from Radebaugh Florist for any purchase of $250 or more. Such activities have helped build customer loyalty, store staff says.
Among the store's recent Valentine's Day customers were a married couple who came from Hagerstown to purchase a ring setting for a diamond handed down by the wife's great-grandmother. The gemstone had been promised to her for an engagement ring but was then lost. Her mother found the gem only after the couple had married. This year, they figured they'd turn it into a new ring.
"They decided Valentine's Day was coming and it would be a great gift," said Susan Diegro, the Nelson Coleman salesperson who designed the new setting, a halo of smaller diamonds.
Kitchel said high-end retailers tend to benefit from Valentine's-related sales because they typically offer the service and personal touch that men appreciate when picking out gifts.
"There's a lot of pressure on males for Valentine's Day, and it's the luxury segment that has the ability … to keep men from making mistakes," Kitchel said. "You don't want to disappoint your wife or girlfriend on Valentine's Day."
At Towson Town Center mall on Friday, Kay Jewelers had a few browsers, mostly male, scrutinizing earrings displayed in a glass case.
Avi Kampler, a cook from Woodlawn, was looking for earrings or a bracelet for his girlfriend. He said he intended to spend about $200 and thought jewelry would be the best bet.
"You want to get something that shows you put some thought into it," he said. "Valentine's Day only comes around once a year."