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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 July 2018

Sorry, romantics – Valentine's Day has no place in our hearts or wallets

Growing consumer sophistication is marking a decline in merchandise

Valentine's Day decorations in downtown Beirut / AP
Valentine's Day decorations in downtown Beirut / AP

Valentine’s Day is dead. A few years ago in the UAE, a walk through any mall on the weekend before Valentine’s Day was akin to taking a stroll through a blood bank: it was wall-to-wall red ribbons attached to teddy bears and heart-shaped red balloons. One high-end boutique was even gifting customers a single red rose with very purchase – a symbol of true love. That year the mall itself had a heart-shaped interior with explosions of red everywhere. Valentine’s Day was a big deal – but this year, not so much.

With its origins in Catholic martyrdom in Roman times, February 14 somehow became a global celebration of romantic love. The date became one of the hospitality industry's busiest days of the year. The sale of flowers also peaks around this time, with one bloom outselling all others, the flower whose very name is an anagram of Eros, the god of love – the rose. Like many other celebratory occasions though, the day now represents little more than a vacuous exercise in consumerism. I suspect growing consumer sophistication and a preference for experiences rather than things are the most prominent threats to this troubled tradition.

There is data to support my observations and intuition. For example, a Mintel report details a year-on-year decline from 2014 to 2016 in the sales of traditional Valentine’s Day items in the UK, including cards, chocolates and flowers. Similarly, in the US, sales for Valentine’s Day last year fell by an estimated seven per cent.

I think the decline of Valentine’s Day is indicative of broader social trends. The 21st century has been described as the age of living single. In some nations, there are more people than ever choosing to remain single for life. A Pew report from 2014 projects that in the coming decades,one in four citizens in the US will be categorised as never-married adults. In Japan, a quarter of men aged 50 already fit this category, as do one in seven women. Valentine’s Day is one of the most popular days to pop the question. The decrease in the number of marriage proposals being made or accepted has to be bad for Valentine’s Day trade.

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Perhaps another reason for the apparent demise of Valentine’s Day is that we have now hit a peak number of celebratory days. We now have so many days for celebrating things – Feb 13, for example is World Radio Day while May 2 is World Tuna Day – that we need to lose some of the old ones. Valentine's Day seems like a fairly obvious place to start.

The growing and seemingly neverending procession of special occasions also poses a threat to other established commemorative traditions: Mother’s Day, for example. A further issue with Mother’s Day, however, is the lack of global consensus on when it should be celebrated. In the UAE, with its diverse population, I’m never 100 per cent sure if it coincides with the US, British or some other global Mother’s Day. A handy excuse, should anyone ever forget.

In recent years we have also seen the emergence and rise to prominence of new calendar dates such as Black Friday. On these occasions, there is no pretence, no shaky claims about being associated with a long-forgotten holy person or event. These newer festive days are an open and unashamed celebration of consumerism, played out around the globe within the great cathedrals of consumption we call shopping malls.

As a psychologist, I have an interest in the place where spirit meets society. The interface between culture, cognition and wellbeing holds a particular fascination for me. Noticing the decreased visibility of Valentine’s Day suggests social change and changing attitudes. How do we feel about romantic love these days? What do we think about materialism and consumerism? And how are these thoughts and feelings influencing our behaviour?

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University