Say you don't need no diamond ring
And I'll be satisfied
Tell me that you want the kind of things
That money just can't buy
For I don't care too much for money,
For money can't buy me love.
-- John Lennon and Paul McCartney, "Can't Buy Me Love"
That is, of course, except tomorrow, Valentine's Day -- that annual free-spending retail smackeroo of cards, candy, lingerie and flowers.
But this year retailers here are surveying the landscape of love with some trepidation because of consumer reluctance to spend in the face of the Persian Gulf War and the shaky domestic economy. Watching the battle between the heads and hearts of shoppers, merchants are hoping love will once again conquer all.
"It's this war thing," said Mitchell Carrington of Palace Florists in Dupont Circle. "It makes people think twice."
Sales at Palace are going well, he said, though not as well as last year, with many more people eschewing the $80-a-dozen roses for cheaper promotional arrangements and less expensive flowers like tulips and carnations.
Still, of the 15,000 to 20,000 flowers Palace expects to sell this week, at least 3,000 will be roses. Many other florists said that rather than buying cheaper spring bouquets, customers are trying to find a way to afford roses, including buying fewer than a dozen.
If customers cut back too much, retail hearts could be broken all over the Washington area. But the calorie count could be down. "We have not done as much business as last year," said Michael Broadnax, owner of Irresistible Eats Bakery in Capitol Heights, who sells dozens of cakes for Valentine's Day.
Broadnax said he is seeing a lot more bargain hunting -- the more expensive $20 cakes go wanting, while the cheaper $5 heart-shaped cheesecakes for two are selling quickly.
At the Pleasure Chest, with two stores in the District, what's true for cheesecake is true for underwear. The $10 cotton boxer shorts with glow-in-the-dark lips are selling faster than the $25 silk briefs.
"People are buying the smaller gift novelty items in more volume," said Pleasure Chest manager Scott Hall. "The men are taking more time with lingerie and looking longer." Still, he added, some shoppers are snatching up leather goods such as bustiers and chaps for $50 and up.
At Sutton Place Gourmet, with locations in Virginia, Maryland and the District, store officials are also seeing different buying patterns this year.
"People will buy just four or five pieces of $30-a-pound Belgian chocolates rather than a bulk box of lesser-quality ones," said Mark Berey, Sutton Place Gourmet president. "The whole idea is less is more and quality is the most important."
With mood-setters champagne and caviar, Berey said people are buying either smaller quantities or lower-priced items. "The people who bought a $40 champagne last year are opting for the $20 bottle this year," said Berey. "They are still enjoying their champagne, but they are watching their budget, too."
Two Quail, the intimate Capitol Hill restaurant, has had to go further out of its way to attract customers this year, according to owner and chef Robert Selke. For example, Two Quail has 350 long-stemmed red roses to give out to customers, and stuffed lobster will be the featured dish of the $70 prix fixe menu.
"We never did roses in the past, but as the economy changed, we knew customers wanted more," said Selke. "And while poached salmon is fine, lobster is more special." Selke said the effort paid off and the restaurant has been booked for almost two weeks.
At Antwerp Diamond Centre and its lower-priced sister Royal Jewelers stores in the area, there are many more lower-priced offerings this year, such as gold chains and charms.
"People are watching their money very carefully and making sure they get what they want, being just as cautious as they were at Christmas," said Jay Frankel, who supervises the chain's stores in the area. "But there has been a lot of traffic, and Valentine's Day does bring a lot of people back into the stores for the first time since Christmas."
Retailers are trying to turn that traffic into last-minute purchasing.
At Fogal at the Galleria at Tysons II, sales of everything from $50 silk panty sets to camisoles that can cost hundreds of dollars have been brisk. "Valentine's Day is a special occasion and people still go for it," said Eileen Rubin, manager and co-owner of the upscale hosiery and lingerie store.
"Valentine's Day seems less hurt by bad times because everyone feels as if they have to give something," said Carlo Anderson of Sheila's Hallmark in Georgetown, tending to lunchtime crowds in line to buy boxers, balloons and plush animals along with tons of cards. "If you really love somebody, you can't have the war or the economy put you on hold for someone you really care about."
So love is for sale? "Yes," said Anderson. "Absolutely."