Women starting new tradition: Valentine’s Day self-indulgence

by Mie Sakamoto

The sluggish economy has done little to dim the hopes of retailers this Valentine’s Day season: They still expect women to flock to their shops to buy chocolates and other gifts for men.

But the unique Japanese Valentine’s Day tradition that dates back to the 1950s — whereby women give chocolates to men on Feb. 14 and get little in return — is starting to change, with more women buying the pricey treats for themselves.

“I’m going to buy chocolates for myself,” said 33-year-old Mariko Ando, who was shopping at Mitsukoshi Ltd.’s store in Tokyo’s Ginza district.

“There are many kinds of chocolates at this time of the year, including limited ones,” she said, adding that she plans to spend just as much on chocolates for herself as she will for that special someone.

Women can, of course, still look forward to White Day on March 14 — a sort of Valentine’s Day counterpart that was introduced in 1980 — when men give gifts in return to those who treated them the month before.

But according to a recent survey conducted by Printemps Ginza Co., 82 percent of women said they will buy Valentine’s Day chocolates for themselves this year, up from 75 percent the previous year.

And they will spend more on themselves. The average price of chocolates that women plan to enjoy alone came to 3,207 yen, or 126 yen more than they will spend on that person who sets their heart aflutter, Printemps Ginza said.

The Valentine’s Day season in Japan, which is dominated by chocolate sales, took root in the mid-1970s and is now a 50 billion yen industry.

At the Mitsukoshi Ginza store, 25 percent to 30 percent of its entire chocolate sales are generated between late January and Feb. 14, said Norihide Saito, a confectionary buyer at Mitsukoshi Ginza.

The store, which normally sells three brands for the rest of the year, is offering 58 different kinds during the period, Saito said.

The origin of this trend can be traced back to 1958, when Kunio Hara, then a part-time worker at Mary Chocolate Co. and now president of the company, came up with an idea for a new sales campaign — prompting women to buy chocolates for their boyfriends and husbands.

It is said that the campaign began at the Shinjuku store of Isetan Co. Women were the chief target because they were the main customers at department stores, said Kaori Kobayashi, a spokeswoman at Mary Chocolate.

The growing influence of women and the increasing popularity of women’s magazines also helped Hara come up with the idea, she said.

During Isetan’s first Valentine’s Day sales campaign, the store sold only three chocolate bars and one card, for a total of 170 yen, Kobayashi said.

But they climbed as the department store kept on conducting the campaigns, and others soon followed suit in seeking a slice of the chocolate pie.

The market grew rapidly in the late 1970s as women started buying chocolates not only for their loved ones but also for their friends, colleagues and bosses.

The phenomenon is called “giri choco” — giving chocolates to someone out of a sense of social obligation.

The sharp economic growth during that period helped fuel the trend. But the practice started waning as the economy began shrinking in the 1990s and working styles began changing.

The fact that Valentine’s Day will be on a Saturday this year also is spurring retailers to encourage women to purchase the sweets for themselves.

Prompting women to buy chocolates for themselves is just one of several gimmicks to boost sales during the season, said Isetan spokesman Tatsuyuki Iwamura.

For instance, he said the department store has started offering more foreign brands of chocolates during the season.

“We thought that the market will start to shrink if we continue relying on demand for giri choco,” Iwamura said.

Isetan’s Shinjuku store now offers 45 brands of chocolate in the runup to Valentine’s Day, about seven times the number it usually sells.

By offering such a variety, chocolate sales between Jan. 15 and Feb. 14 last year surged 35 percent from the previous year, Iwamura said.

Mary Chocolate also started urging women to buy chocolates for themselves by creating the catch phrase “Myself Valentine.”

“We came up with the phrase reflecting the growing trend that more women want to eat chocolates themselves and the weakening demand for giri choco,” said Mary Chocolate’s Kobayashi.

A similar trend — more women buying luxury items for themselves instead of receiving them as presents — can also be seen at jewelry counters.

Iwamura of Isetan said the department store has recently observed women in their 20s and 30s purchasing expensive jewelry and watches — with hefty price tags from 400,000 yen to 500,000 yen — during the summer and winter bonus seasons.

“Such luxuries are said to be bought as a ‘reward for myself,’ ” Iwamura said. “As customers become picky about choosing products, they search for rarer, more value-added ones.”