It's 'sheer madness,' but Valentine's Day provides a sweet spot for suburban retailers
Love is serious business for independent shop owners in February.
Valentine's Day provides a correction from the January slump, a bright spot in a slow season and -- at Barrington Flower Shop -- "the single busiest day of our year," owner Glen Egeland said.
He starts ordering roses and other blooms Dec. 1. "It has has to do with securing the flowers and finding out what crops are available," Egeland explained. "This day and age, it's a lot harder to secure the product."
Likewise, the team at Graham's Fine Chocolates & Ice Cream in Geneva begins its preparations in January, creating molds for confections and securing supplies, CEO Jayni Wunderlich said.
"Valentine's week is kind of the trickiest for us," she noted, adding that shoppers have specific gifts in mind.
"Whether that's truffles, English toffee or giant chocolate-covered strawberries -- they're looking for that one item that their love loves."
That means "we have to keep everything in stock. We hate to disappoint people by not having the one thing they need to pick up."
Meanwhile, Anderson's Bookshop buyer Sally Blackburn has already procured countless cards featuring hearts plus some captivating new products she hopes will fly off the shelves at stores in Naperville and Downers Grove,
As Feb. 14 approaches, shoppers shake off the winter blues and realize, "'oh, oh, I better go get a card or a gift.' It gets people out and about," Blackburn said.
The majority of Egeland's flowers come from South America and Mexico since they're typically cheaper than domestic ones. Red roses are still king although they're about 20% pricier than other colors and many female recipients prefer a different hue, Egeland said.
He tries to make some converts, but "that's not going to happen," he admitted. "It's a male-driven holiday and one preconception is -- it's got to be red roses."
Come Feb. 13 and 14, it's "sheer madness."
Egeland and his designers can handle the crush of orders but not the surge in delivery requests. The shop usually employs two drivers, but for Valentine's Day they need six to eight -- if they can get them.
He's used to rescuing panicked men showing up at the last minute Feb. 14 desperate for a bouquet.
"If you want to walk in and pick it up, we're good. If you want it delivered that's where the problem lies," Egeland said, urging procrastinators to get their orders in.
He also cautions about online imitators, explaining searches for "flower shop Barrington" will result in pop-ups far from the western suburbs.
When Egeland was dating his wife, she volunteered to help out one Valentine's Day. At closing time, "her legs were killing her, her feet were throbbing and her mind was a complete blank."
But 30 years later, "she's still here," he said.
'A big juicy kiss'
After the turmoil of COVID-19, Anderson's sales are back to 2019 levels, said Blackburn, who describes herself as a "conservative" buyer.
"At Christmas, my goal is to have about 20 boxes of Christmas cards left. I'd like to have almost zero, then I've done my job."
With Valentine's Day there's not much room for error.
That's because "once Valentine's Day is over, it's really over. I do not go overboard on Valentine's Day just because you can't sell it after."
Fortunately, "romance books have gone crazy this year," thanks to Netflix shows such as "Bridgerton."
"They've brought romance titles to the forefront so we have beefed up our section," Blackburn said, adding Anderson's is taking advantage of the craze with a 14% off sale on romances from Feb. 1 to 14.
New vendors she's sweet on include Candy Club, offering "adorable" packaged treats like Sweetheart Pretzels, "Be Mine" chocolate hearts stuffed with toffee and caramel, and Sour Smooches in the shape of lips.
Another is Knock, Knock, a company that makes "cute, little" books with vouchers for "A Big Juicy Kiss," or "Alone Time," or "Household Chore."
It's not quite Christmas or Easter, but still "Valentine's week is one of our busiest of the entire year," Wunderlich said of Graham's Fine Chocolates.
"We always joke that our demographic certainly favors women here at Graham's Chocolates, but on Valentine's Day -- it's the one day of the year that's all men in the shop -- they just come in with their eyes wide."
The shop encourages preordering with scheduled pickup times to keep things smooth, and Wunderlich typically adds staff and extends hours over Valentine's.
A new item in 2023 is "heartbreaker boxes," molded chocolate hearts recipients break to find strawberries and candies inside.
Demand for chocolate-dipped strawberries keeps kitchen staff hopping, with customers devouring about 300 pounds over Valentine's celebrations in 2022.
Supply chain dysfunction was an issue in 2021 when Wunderlich couldn't obtain any fresh strawberries with stems on.
But with their mainstay, "we've really lucked out. In this area we have some of the best milk around in the Midwest here. There's a lot of chocolate and milk suppliers."
Rising prices have impacted Graham's products but "there's gifts for all types of budgets," from chocolate sucker pops to elaborate boxes of truffles, Wunderlich said.
When the last customer leaves on Feb. 14, "I always like to bring home strawberries for my kids and we'll celebrate. But my husband knows to buy me flowers and not chocolate."