Treats for your sweet -- on a budget

02/13/2009 12:11 AM

02/13/2009 12:15 AM

A few years ago, one love-struck Romeo bought the 6-foot window display meant to lure customers into Hart Floral. He left the Modesto shop with a big bunch of heart-shaped balloons strapped to the hood of his car.

This year's big splurge -- two dozen red roses with 6-foot stems -- awaits a buyer who can afford to spend $500.

With the economy in a tailspin and Valentine's Day falling on a Saturday, industry analysts predict flower sales will be off by as much as 30 percent, said Hart Floral owner Chris Downing, who remained hopeful but realistic.

"Flowers should be part of Valentine's Day," said Downing, who still will fill a dozen delivery trucks with tasteful arrangements that cost about $30 each. "It sets the mood."

Many sweethearts can look forward to getting a three-day weekend this year because Presidents Day is Monday. Yet

given the loss of more than 2 million jobs nationwide along with billions of dollars in investments and retirement accounts, big romantic gestures may be downsized.

If advertised specials are any indicator, fewer couples plan weekend getaways.

While diamonds may last forever, chocolate is expected to be the bigger seller, according to the Nielsen Co., a global provider of marketing data.

The recession doesn't affect everyone equally, however.

Spending at the high end of the market continues. Rooms at the Ahwahnee hotel in Yosemite National Park go for $561 Saturday night -- and reservations have kept pace with last year.

"We're only down 2 percent from last year," said spokesman Kenny Karst.

Deals aim for frugal travelers

But overall cutbacks in travel spending have spawned special promotions, with three- and four-star hotels in San Francisco charging 15 percent to 20 percent less than last year on Valentine's Day, according to Hotwire, an online travel agency that specializes in discounted rooms.

A double room and breakfast at the Westin St. Francis Hotel on Union Square can be booked for $179.

Some of the valley's upscale restaurants anticipate sell-out crowds, which suggests that some couples plan to make the most of a Saturday night closer to home.

Galletto Ristorante in Mo- desto has reservations for nearly 500, up from 411 last year, said bartender Christopher Hull.

Hazel's Elegant Dining in Modesto had so many takers that it will seat some people at 9 p.m. and turn others away, said co-owner Jeffrey Stogsdill.

Bistro 234 in Turlock was booked a month in advance and owner Jennifer Doerk- sen Bethel said she has noticed a surprising trend in recent months. "Our liquor sales are up beyond belief," she said.

Diamond pendants and Rolex watches still are selling at Harland Jewelers in Mo- desto, said manager Amanda Jones, but the McHenry Village store is boosting its sales by offering roses dipped in 24-karat gold for $49.95.

James Weaver, a regular customer who has a penchant for watches, said he will buy something with a little sparkle for his wife because they have been blessed by good fortune.

"There's a time to be frugal, but not with your Valentine," said Weaver, who is senior vice president of human resources for Pacific Southwest Container in Modesto.

Nevertheless, an overall trend toward frugality is expected as the economy sputters.

"We think it will get worse before getting better," said Standard & Poor's retail analyst Marie Driscoll. "People might just get chocolates this year."

Wednesday at McHenry Village, there was just a trickle of foot traffic at Harland Jewelers, but a long line of shoppers filled the lobby of a nearby See's Candies. As she ducked out of the candy store with a 1-pound box of chocolates under her arm, Nancy Dickman of Modesto said she has scaled back.

"I would have gotten 2 pounds," she said, "but $17 is enough."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

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