Will Germany ever really buy Valentine’s Day? | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 11.02.2016
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Will Germany ever really buy Valentine’s Day?

As the US prepares for big profits on the day of love, German retailers are hoping customers remember the holiday at all. The country has only half-heartedly embraced the late-comer tradition.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stands with the Flower Fairy at a Valentine's Day celebration

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stands with the "Flower Fairy" at a Valentine's Day celebration

"The celebration of Valentine’s Day did arrive in Germany much later than in the UK or the United States," the Wall Street Journal wrote back in 2014, "so it stands to reason the holiday’s rampant consumerism may arrive later too." But businesses here in Bonn are hardly holding their breath.

With Karneval season now over, the clowns are coming down in the city center and the hearts are finally going up, with the day of love just days away.

Advertisements on the shop windows of jewelers though hardly indulge notions of romance and luxury. The goal of many, it seems, is to remind shoppers that the holiday exists.

"Valentine's Day is on February 14," more than a few signs humbly state.

Though American pop culture continues to be prevalent in Germany - with all the Valentine's Day television specials and social media memes this entails - and the commercial potential of the holiday continues to tempt worldwide, the country's flirtation with the tradition seems to be cooling.

The holiday’s foreign origin and connection to commercial aims always a bit too conspicuous, Valentine’s Day late arrival in Germany - rather than being a harbinger of the sales to come - may be the reason why the throngs of love-struck customers will never show.

An American import

To understand the history of Valentine’s Day in Germany is in part to understand the country’s large economic trends since World War II.

Entering the German consciousness around the turn of the 20thcentury, Valentine's Day was first celebrated in Nuremberg by American soldiers stationed there during the war.

Florists have long dominated Valentine's Day sales in Germany

Florists have long dominated Valentine's Day sales in Germany

Taking note, German florists sensed an opportunity to rebuild their trade amidst the postwar rubble. In 1950 the "FLEUROP Commission for Flower Propaganda" was founded, leading an advertising campaign to enlighten Germans of the day of love (and of course the power of flowers to express the sentiment).

The campaign met with some success in West Germany during the time of its "Wirtschaftswunder" (economic miracle), when the country embraced an American-style consumerism.

But the roots were shallow, historian Maja Kützemeier notes. As German society by-and-large reconsidered its steadfast commitment to materialism in the 1970s, the spread of the holiday stalled, far from the point of becoming a national tradition. Lovers here and there would gift bouquets, rarely anything else.

Renewed faith in the economy and the spread of television series from the US helped pick the tempo up again the 80s, and with more vigor - because the sweets industry looked to grab a slice of the pie. And as American media and German chocolate have yet to fall out of fashion, the holiday has since remained to a certain extent popular, with references now commonplace on social media.

A cold embrace

After decades then of fits and starts, Valentine’s Day certainly has found a place in German culture. Lufthansa recently boasted of shipping millions of roses into the country for the special day.

But the numbers are still relatively slight compared to the US, where, according to the research firm Statista, nearly $10 billion (11 billion euro) were spent last year on Valentine’s Day dinner alone.

Cologne's love lock bridge

Cologne's "love lock" bridge

This is in large part because public sentiment towards Valentine’s Day remains quite defiant. Two-thirds of Germans say they are bothered by the theatrics surrounding the holiday. A fifth believe it was made-up by florists (they are not too far off). And 90 percent of men and women in Germany would rather share gifts with their partner over the entire year rather than just on a single day.

"Every day should be about love," a student at the University of Bonn told DW. He then thought for a moment: "Although my girlfriend still would probably be mad if I didn’t get her anything."

He compared the holiday to a similar yet local tradition in which single men decorate "Maibäume" (May trees) and place them in front of the house of a special someone. An alternate, more modern expression of commitment can also be found in the "love locks" hung on bridges throughout Germany.

This ambivalence to Valentine’s Day is borne out by the numbers – many Germans celebrate the holiday, but just as many don’t. And those who do rarely go overboard. Gift purchases average fewer than 20 euros - less than Americans plan to spend on their pets.

Business as usual

This, of course, is not ideal for German retailers. But after so many years of limited progress, they harbor low expectations.

A florist in Bonn’s marketplace was doing brisk business on Wednesday, but little of it was specific to Valentine’s Day – this, he said, would have to wait until February 13.

A couple of blocks away, a French restaurant is all booked up for brunch on Valentine’s Day. "Just like any other Sunday, only with more tables for two,"the owner said. There were plenty of tables free to reserve for dinner, she added.

And a salesperson at a near-by jeweler said she has hardly noticed any increase in foot-traffic as of late. But, she insisted, "Valentine’s Day gifts are more than just flowers!"

German online stores are making a bit of a push to build excitement the holiday. The gift retailer Monsterzeug released a "Valentine's Day in Real-time" calculator, which tallies by second the average number of flowers bought in Germany on February 14, trips to Paris booked, beds broken and more.

Its website peddles a dizzying number of Valentine’s Day gifts, include a "fake boyfriend" cuddle-pillow so no one gets left out. But sales are still a far cry from China’s Single’s Day celebration, which has become the world’s biggest day for online shopping.

Given Valentine’s Days historical connection with the ebbs and flows of the German economy, there may still be hope among those wishing for a bump in sales this February. Consumer spending is on the rise.

Nonetheless, whether the lackluster shop-window ads speak to a lack of public interest in the holiday, a lack of marketing creativity in building an aura of romance around it, or a combination of both, they reveal that things are unlikely to change much any time soon.

As with love, a multi-billion-euro Valentine's Day is not something to enter into half-heartedly. The cards have been on the table, and many Germans are still not buying them.