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Heavy petting? Millennials shelling out record amounts on Valentine gifts for their furry friends

“Within that loner bubble is a connection with a dog, a cat, a hedgehog,” said one marketing expert.
Dachshund chewing huge bone
Marcelo Maia / Getty Images

Your dog doesn’t care if the treat or toy you give him is heart-shaped and red — but more than one in four Americans this year say they plan to buy Valentine’s Day gifts for their pets anyway.

Building on the “Galentine’s Day” theme of the past couple of years that encouraged women to spend money not just on their romantic partners but on and with their friends as well, Valentine’s Day spending has surged. According to a new survey from the National Retail Federation, Valentine’s Day spending will spike by 32 percent from last year — and nearly all of that gain is attributable to people buying gifts for someone other than their boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife.

The NRF found that survey respondents who celebrate Valentine’s Day plan to spend a record-breaking $196.31, on average, a jump of 21 percent over last year, which also was a record at $161.96. In total, the NRF predicts that Valentine’s Day spending will grow to $27.4 billion this year.

Valentine’s Day spending is up by 32 percent since last year — and nearly all of that is attributable to people buying gifts for someone other than their boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife.

There are a few trends driving this surge. One is simply that Americans have both the willingness and the ability to spend. “Gift-giving can be driven by the economy,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement.

Shay characterized the expected Valentine’s Day spending boom as an extension of last year’s growth in holiday sales. “The same strong employment numbers and higher wages that boosted holiday sales should make it easier to… spread the gift-giving beyond just your significant other.”

But while romantic partners are still the biggest beneficiaries of Valentine’s Day purchases, the pool of recipients for this traditionally romantic holiday has widened significantly — a shift that observers say points to the convergence of a few broad trends.

Consumers say they will spend an average $30.19 on family members other than spouses, up slightly from $29.87 last year, and $14.69 on friends, up from $9.78 last year. And for many, their orbit of Valentine’s has expanded even beyond that. NRF survey respondents plan to spend an average of $12.96 on co-workers, up from $7.78, last year, and $12.21 on their pets, up from $6.94.

Although people in the 35-44 age bracket reported the highest planned spending, younger consumers are driving the trend towards more inclusive Valentine’s giving.

“It really plays into this sense of reduced focus on romantic relationships for this generation,” said Karen Becker-Olsen, an associate professor of marketing and interdisciplinary business at The College of New Jersey.

“There’s a sense of loner living but within that loner bubble is a connection with a dog, a cat, a hedgehog,” she said, which is reflected in the surge in pet Valentines.

Becker-Olsen said social media has been key to the transformation of this outlook, with the word “friend” becoming more loosely defined but still deeply symbolic.

“It’s such a deeply ingrained word that you still have a sense of emotional connection,” she said. “If you get in-app advertising on Instagram, Facebook and some other spaces, all of a sudden it becomes highly salient.”

The rise in coworker Valentine’s Day spending is most likely a function of the tight labor market, said John Challenger, CEO of executive outplacement and coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

“We’re near an environment of near-full employment. Companies are focusing on culture, trying to hold on to their people. They create connections among coworkers,” he said. “It certainly seems like a manifestation of work companies are doing. It’s really a sign of collaboration.”

Survey respondents also plan to spend, on average, $14.45 on their kids’ classmates and teachers, up from $8.63 last year. Becker-Olsen said this is an indication of higher expectations that come with rising wealth.

“I think some of the rise in that group that has young kids in school, [is because] as your affluence grows a little bit, you want to be able to buy something more than just the card,” she said. “It’s become a one-upmanship by the moms.”