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Selling love and romance in the time of COVID-19

Retailers and matchmakers adjust to the strangeness of this Valentine’s Day

Alison Buttiglieri worked on a floral arrangement at Exotic Flowers in Roslindale. Rick Canale, vice president of Exotic Flowers, said people are “using flowers to connect with each other again.”David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

How do you spice up a pandemic?

A bizarre question, perhaps. But for retailers whose revenues tend to surge every year in mid-February, it’s been an increasingly pressing issue. Consider the circumstances, which might make Cupid cringe: We’re home all day and night. We’re anxious. We’re wearing sweat pants an inordinate amount of time, and we’re around our partners 24/7. And for the uncoupled, it’s that much harder to find love in an era of social distancing and Zoom dates.

Suffice it to say that for many, Valentine’s Day isn’t exactly top of mind.

In fact, nearly 40 percent of Americans are planning to skip the day of hearts and roses to save money this year, according to a LendingTree survey. And the National Retail Federation expects consumer spending on their sweethearts to dip to $21.8 billion this year, down 20 percent from last year’s record splurge of $27.4 billion.

That poses a unique challenge for the brands and industries that tend to traffic in romance, from restaurants to florists. COVID-19 has already made doing business exponentially harder. It’s now forcing many in the love-game to contemplate the impossible: How exactly does one spark romance — and sales — during a global health crisis?

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“Normally romance should be all year round, but the world we’re living in now makes that a lot more challenging. No romantic dinners, you don’t even have an opportunity to go on dates, because where do you go? It’s 10 degrees out,” said James Michael Sama, a Boston-area relationship coach who has seen his matchmaking business dwindle during the pandemic.

With yet another go-to date night disrupted, local restaurateurs are attempting to adapt. But nearly a year into the pandemic, it’s not just hard to motivate diners to eat indoors. People are so exhausted that it’s tough to muster up the enthusiasm to be romantic at all.

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“Everyone is sick of each other,” lamented Luke Beardslee, general manager of Osteria Nino in Burlington. And so a trickle of Valentine’s Day dinners this year is making him scramble. “We’re totally a destination where people come for the ambiance and that kind of bottle of wine, pasta, ‘Lady and the Tramp’ kind of thing. Valentine’s Day is one of the three best days of the year for us.”

Rachel Wentworth, owner of Forty Winks, arranged lingerie at her shop in Harvard Square.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

While he’s still seeking reservations, he’s also taking orders for meal kits that come about 75 percent prepared, he said. That lets the customers have the drama of cooking the lobster ravioli and prepping cannoli themselves, while also acknowledging few have the energy to pull off an elaborate meal at home, he said. “It offers people a kind of olive branch: ‘Hey, we’re still in a relationship and I’m doing something special for you. See what I did?’ ”

For businesses that have seen a slowdown already this year, a dip in V-day sales will be an additional sting. “There are people who are like, I can’t handle the idea of romance right now, I don’t want to be near my partner at all,” said Rachel Wentworth, co-owner of Forty Winks, a lingerie store in Cambridge. Another subset, she added, are “not in a long-term relationship or are not dating” because of the pandemic.

So she’s adapting the store’s outreach this year to fit the times we’re in. “We’re trying to be really consistent with our marketing and messaging, saying, ‘We know that we’re stuck at home, let’s have fun, either by yourself or with a partner. However you want to indulge during this season, we’re here for you,’ ” she said.

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And Wentworth has also been noticing an eyebrow-raising trend.

“There are so many people who are like, ‘I have to spice things up, I’m so bored,’ ” she said. “We’ve been selling way more pieces that are over-the-top. There’s this element of ‘we’re home anyway, let’s go all out.’ ” Plunging necklines, bodysuits, and open gussets are big sellers. The more risqué, she said, the better.

Some say a yearlong, soul-crushing pandemic is all the more reason to seek out a little affection.

“You have to take advantage of the opportunities to be romantic. To make the day to reconnect and rekindle your relationship. We need to use it as an excuse to celebrate,” said Sama, the relationship coach. “I think one of the things that frustrates us about Valentine’s Day is that it is so commercialized: Here’s the chocolate and the roses. You know? This year it gives the opportunity to switch the messaging to connecting and reconnecting. Which might sound ironic because you’re always together, but that doesn’t mean you’re emotionally connected.”

For some businesses, hopeful signs are already very much underway.

Kristina Burkey, the owner of Calliope Paperie, began to see a surge in stationery sales soon after she had to close her Natick storefront last March. She still hasn’t reopened, but her revenue has more than doubled due to online card sales. “More and more brands started making these great quarantine jokes,” she said. “People ate it up and loved it. It was the only way they could communicate and reach out.”

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Now, her Valentine’s Day cards reflect a newfound earnestness. “I’m seeing themes like, ‘We survived quarantine together, I’m pretty sure this is forever,’ or ‘I love you more and more every day,’” she said. “Which says a lot these days, when it’s all day, every day.”

And Rick Canale, the vice president of Exotic Flowers in Roslindale, said that while he missed the string of spring holidays and events that tend to be his biggest selling days last year — Easter, Mother’s Day, proms, and graduations — he’s expecting a surprisingly robust Valentine’s Day this year.

“We’ll be busy,” he said, thanks in part to a surge in interest from customers sending flowers that he hasn’t seen since the ’70s and ’80s. “Industrywide there has been seismic change in the floral industry. They’re using flowers to connect with each other again.” A recent survey conducted by the Society of American Florists found that more than 80 percent of respondents reported an increase in December 2020 holiday sales, compared to 2019, and half said they expected Valentine’s Day sales this year to exceed last year’s.

Rick Canale of Exotic Flowers is expecting plenty of Valentine’s Day business.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The trend is also reflected in the messages that Canale’s customers are sending to their loved ones, he said, which are in some ways a window into our collective psyche.

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“You see more thought,” he said, with people waxing poetic about how they couldn’t imagine going through the past few months with anyone else. “It’s kind of what you want to say, but you’ve never said it before.”


Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.