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Retailers embrace Valentine’s Day for singles

Stores have long encouraged couples to show their devotion on Valentine's Day by dropping bucks on chocolates, roses and a bottle of wine of impressive provenance. But now some retailers are targeting singles — and finding that many are willing to spend just as much as twosomes in indulging themselves this holiday.
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Forget love. Let's talk about shopping.

Stores have long encouraged couples to show their devotion on Valentine's Day by dropping bucks on chocolates, roses and a bottle of wine of impressive provenance. But now some retailers are targeting singles — and finding that many are willing to spend just as much as twosomes in indulging themselves this holiday.

"Valentine's Day always comes with a certain amount of expectation and angst," said Jennifer Olsen, senior director of marketing for Piperlime, an online shoe store owned by Gap. "We just wanted to turn that on its head and say: 'You know what? It's Valentine's Day. Give some love to yourself.' "

For many women, that love can be expressed in the form of $350 white Mary Jane wedges by Cynthia Vincent, found under the "Be your own Valentine" category at Piperlime. The promotion began in mid-January, and the company followed up last week with an e-mail to customers with the image of a gift tag that read "To me, from me, xoxo." Sales have been strong, Olsen said.

The National Retail Federation, the country's largest retail trade group, estimates the average consumer will spend $119.67 for Valentine's Day this year, up from $100.89 last year. Men are expected to outpace women, with charges of $156.22 compared with $85.08. But the group does not track how much people spend on themselves for Valentine's Day, spokesman Scott Krugman said.

Still, "it makes total sense," he said. "People certainly do reward themselves during the holidays."

The latest Census data might encourage retailers to broaden the reach of Valentine's Day beyond snuggly couples. According to the American Community Survey done in 2005, nearly 58 million females, or almost half of those over age 15, have never been married or are separated, divorced or widowed, up almost 5 percent from three years earlier. Since 1990, the number has jumped nearly 20 percent.

That's part of the reason why Helle Jeppsson, one of the owners of Hela Spa in Georgetown, sent an e-mail reminder to her clients that their significant others need not be the only recipients of their generosity. Last year, a group of about a dozen single women took her advice to heart and rented out the spa for a night of facials, massages and cocktails, she said.

"I personally feel that Valentine's Day — I know from when I was single — it can be kind of rough out there when we see all these couples," she said.

Cosmetics retailer Sephora dismisses the traditional dinner-and-a-movie date as "such a yawn" on its Web site. Instead, the company suggests women buy themselves pink lip glosses and peachy face powder to mimic love's glow. Kelly O'Neill, product marketing director for software developer ATG, which powers Sephora's site along with those of several other national chains, said other retailers are subtly packaging products together online to encourage customers to buy items for themselves even if they're looking for presents for others.

"It's all about Valentine's Day," O'Neill said, "yet it's not screaming about buying gifts."

Ronnie Mervis, of local jeweler Mervis Diamond Importers, said business for Valentine's Day picked up in early February and he expects it to last through the week. Three women have been among the men browsing the cases at his stores, he said. One bagged a heart-shaped pendant encrusted in diamonds, another got a pair of earrings and the third bought a bracelet, all for themselves.

"People have been saying: 'I love myself. I love myself as well as anybody and if not a little bit more.' " Mervis said. "Hey, go girl!"

But women are not the only ones engaging in a little retail therapy this holiday season. Rob Henley, 27, of Annapolis plans to get himself a Rolex this week — just because.

Henley said a watch is usually the first gift a woman gives in a relationship. And since he's not dating anyone this Valentine's Day, he might as well get one for himself. That way he can buy what he really wants.

"I seem to have a little bit more money when I'm not dating someone," Henley said.

For bachelor Jim Ryan, 44, of the District, Valentine's Day is a serious affair. Each year he mails 400 cards to friends, families, acquaintances, business colleagues and anyone else in his extensive Rolodex. The cards include a letter — personally signed — with an update on Ryan's life. Sort of like the Christmas holiday newsletter, only two months later.

Ryan said it took him 12 to 16 hours to lick the 400 stamps, fold the letters and stuff the envelopes. That will be followed by a belated Valentine's lunch Thursday at the Palm for 40 of his most important clients in his job as the senior manager of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority based in the District.

What does Ryan get for all effort? Maybe one card in the mail in return, he said.

So Ryan is taking the matter into his own hands. He has booked an appointment for Friday at the swanky Ritz-Carlton spa in Georgetown, where their exclusive new Prada massage and facials go for nearly $300. Ryan said he isn't sure what type of treatment he's getting and he doesn't care.

"I told them to pick. I told them I got 200 bucks," he said. "I just want to get some stress taken away."