Love is free. Yet, even in this sluggish economy, store owners find shoppers willing to splurge and spoil their sweethearts, family and friends on Valentine's Day.
"People are not forgetting. They're still giving, and that's awesome," said Teresa Musser, owner of Gadgets & Goodies in Kennewick.
Her observations agree with the National Retail Federation's 2012 Valentine's Day consumer survey. Results show the average person will shell out $126, up 8.5 percent from last year, making it the highest in the survey's 10-year history.
Storekeepers said consumers have been looking for quality, something unique or something personal.
Popular items at Musser's store have been gourmet candy, jewelry, purses and heart-shaped measuring spoons and cups.
"And we have an awesome lip ring. It's costume jewelry made in the shape of lips that you wear on your finger. It's a lot of fun and certainly different," she said.
Sharon McAlmond, one of the owners of Touchstone Jewelers in Kennewick, said, "Sales have been very, very good, not just for Valentine's but the holidays and since then too. People are willing to spend money on important things. They're not skimping on Valentine's Day; that's a pretty important day for sweethearts."
Sparkly baubles set with colored stones are a popular pick at Touchstone and so are pearls, a traditional choice for Valentine's Day, and bejeweled, animal-shaped trinket boxes.
Then there's the tried-and-true Valentine's Day combo -- flowers and candy.
"Two things we do really well with here at Lucky Flowers are bouquets of tropical flowers from Hawaii, and mixed bouquets of roses and lilies," Ben Behen said. "The rose and lilly mix, wow. The roses open up nice and bigand the lilies smell so great. Color and fragrance are important, then if you add chocolate in there, you've really nailed it for Valentine's."
Behen and his wife, Melissa, and partner Tiffanni Wright, opened Lucky Flowers six years ago in Pasco. This year they're finding customers are splurging less on big bouquets, instead opting for quality flowers and custom designs.
Orders average about $75, and sales have been steady for a week.
"People planned a little early but today has been crazy," Behen said Monday. "That's to be expected, the day of and day before Valentine's are always out of control."
At Arlene's Flowers in Richland, customers are a bit more generous with their dollars.
On Monday, store manager Janell Becker said, "We've sold several bouquets costing over $95, two this morning were $200, and some have been in the $175 to $150 range."
What customers have been looking for are unique vases and distinctive containers.
"They want something as attractive as the flowers," Becker said.
She expects a rush about 3 p.m. today. That's when all the procrastinators -- on their way home from work -- are thinking, "I've got to get flowers." Last-minuteshoppers may find cut flowers in shortsupply but dish and bulb gardens, house plants and small blooming plants are also great Valentine's Day gifts, she said.
Candy stores too are bracing for the last-minute surge.
At Baum's House of Chocolate in West Richland, sales Monday were brisk.
"Shoppers have been lined up from the counter to the door all day," said staff member Gary Nixon.
The candy shop is known for its handmade candies, but demand for their flavored popcorn, all 40 kinds, is what's keeping the staff hopping. The two most popular are caramel and cheese, but there also are rave reviews for their chocolate-coated corn.
"People tell us the cherry-flavored, chocolate-drizzled corn is better than our cherry-flavored candies," Nixon said.
You can spend as little as 25 cents for hand-molded suckers at Baum's, but most sales are averaging $30 to $35, Nixon said.
Sally Luebben, owner of Boehms Candy and Gifts in Richland, agreed, calling candy "an affordable indulgence."
-- Loretto J. Hulse: 582-1513; email@example.com