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St. Valentine’s Day is a key occasion for confectioners as consumers snap up an estimated 50 billion yen worth of sweets to give to friends and loved ones on Feb. 14.

But the country’s large-scale chocolatiers are feeling a crunch as more and more fancy chocolate boutiques sprout up in major cities and take a bite out of the market.

Last week, workers at Le Chocolatier Takagi in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward were in a last-minute frenzy preparing 150,000 fancy chocolates for sale in their shop, which can only hold three customers at a time. The shop expects 300 visitors a day this week.

“Valentine’s is a big event, during which we expect to earn some 70 percent of our annual sales,” said Yasumasa Takagi, the shop’s owner and patissier.

Takagi is among a growing list of celebrity chocolate masters who, along with famous foreign chocolatiers like Godiva, are making the industry’s largest annual event less sweet for the big players.

Takagi’s chocolates, displayed in an chilled showcase like jewelry, fetch at least 200 yen for a tiny bite. People from all over the country covet the 36-year-old European-trained chocolatier’s delights, spending an average 2,000 yen per purchase. Distant customers order by fax.

Takagi opened the shop in October, branching out from a nearby confectionary he opened in August 2000.

“We are working from 6:30 in the morning until midnight, but we can’t catch up with the orders,” he said.

Such hot demand is the envy of the big players.

Morinaga & Co., which boasts 32 billion yen in annual chocolate output and claims to be the first domestic firm to produce the sweet, in 1918, marketed some 30 special Valentine’s items at its peak. In recent years, however, the giant confectioner has reduced its line, and now only markets five items for Valentine’s.

Morinaga officials said it just does not pay for the firm to invest heavily in Valentine’s fare.

“There is too much risk in Valentine items,” said Terushi Hyodo of Morinaga’s confectionery sales division. “They will be worthless after Feb. 14. Even without Valentine’s, most chocolate is sold in winter, so we are not much into the event.”

Bigger rival Lotte Co. is similarly wary.

“It’s a highly competitive race in such a short period of time,” said Shinichiro Mori, assistant creative manager of Lotte products planning. “Large mass-production companies like ours can’t compete with small chocolate makers, who can make a variety of items in small lots.”

The confectionary officials also noted the decline of “giri choco,” or obligatory chocolate, a custom in which women used to give sweets to their male classmates or office colleagues. Mass-produced, inexpensive items — including 100 yen chocolate bars — churned out by the major manufacturers were considered the ideal sweet when romance wasn’t part of the equation.

A major blow to the custom came in the wake of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in January 1995, when such frivolous spending drew criticism amid public calls for donations to help the survivors, industry officials said.

However, a small but growing schoolgirl fad — “tomo choco,” or friend chocolate — may resurrect the chocolate giants’ fortunes.

Yumi Innami, a product planning official at Meiji Seika Kaisha Ltd. said exchanges of chocolate between junior high and high school girls has triggered a potential new boom.

The country’s largest chocolate maker, which sells 10 billion yen of its Milk Chocolate bars a year, said the fad is providing new opportunities.

Starting this season, Meiji started a campaign to promote “homemade” chocolate gifts using its chocolate bars. It also began marketing special “homemade kits,” which include plastic molds.

Lotte has also started to cash in on a home-cooking boom, offering recipe suggestions in the packages of its Ghana Milk Chocolate bars and releasing chocolate bags designed specially for home-cooking.

“Our mass brand image might not appeal to today’s Valentine shoppers,” Meiji’s Innami said, “but it should find favor with those who want homemade sweets.”

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