Valentine’s Day by the Numbers

Does the most telling information about the least quantifiable of emotions come from numbers?

Many consumer reports are typically released in weeks leading up to St. Valentine’s Day, similar to other holidays associated with high demand in the retail and customer service sector (more commonly referred to as ‘Hallmark holidays’). Figures from these surveys advise retail outlets on marketing strategies for the upcoming holiday season, and supposedly reveal trends in consumer behaviours.

For example, according to this year’s results, both Canadians and Americans plan on a more frugal Valentine’s Day celebration. However, according to the National Research Federation’s survey, “frugal” for the polled Americans means the average expense of $133.91 on a Valentine’s Day date. In a different survey, Canadians take home the savings trophy, with only 7 per cent willing to spend over $100 on their significant other, compared to 20 per cent of our neighbors south of the border.

Unsurprisingly, the leading gift ideas for this Valentine’s Day are chocolate or candy, cards, and flowers. Several surveys in Canada and the U.S. have concluded that the leading activity for celebrating couples is a dinner date.

Consumer trends on Valentine's Day rarely change year after year (EggDrop, 2012)

Consumer trends on Valentine’s Day rarely change year after year (EggDrop, 2012)

No matter how fascinating these figures may be, they eventually lead to the following question: did we reduce Saint Valentine’s sacrifice for lovers to sugar overdose and recycling nightmare?

The comforting thing about numbers is that they are just that: a collection of responses from a small population pool. What matters is how we analyse this data and interpret the results.

The majority of polling in anticipation of Valentine’s Day is commissioned by retail outlets in a thinly veiled attempt to cater to consumer trends that emerge in the process. Frugal Valentine’s Day plans lead to more coupon deals and holiday discounts for the romantically-inclined. The popularity of chocolate and flowers mean extended shopping hours for chocolatiers and florists across the continent.

Freedom for interpretation of poll numbers can take a different direction. One result that made headlines over the weekend was the finding that most Canadians would choose sex over a material gift, with women trailing some 23 per cent behind men in that regard. It’s important to remember that in any research, the way the questions are formulated greatly influences the responses. What this means for the sex statistic is that the question we should ask is not ‘Why does gender X prefer sex more?’ but instead, ‘Who made the decision to make the activities of gift-giving and physical intimacy mutually exclusive?’ Was there an option for ‘Both would be nice’?

If there is something to be drawn from the Valentine’s Day survey data, it is that these numbers most likely don’t reflect our romantic habits. The celebration of Valentine’s Day puts pressure on everyone. Year after year, researchers tell us that single people feel especially lonely, partners are plagued by high expectations, and many couples break up to avoid the stress of Valentine’s Day. Despite the fact that 20 per cent of Canadians are apparently hoping for a surprise from their Valentine, how can one really tell if that surprise needs to be an engagement ring or a trip to Paris? Maybe this is the real cause for sweethearts to resort to the safety of candy and cards.