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Flowers at a fruit market in Toronto on February 13, 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Flowers at a fruit market in Toronto on February 13, 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Retail

These stores prep for Valentine's Day months in advance Add to ...

Lailina Smith refers to Valentine’s Day as her “second Christmas.”

Ms. Smith is co-owner, with husband Brandon, of SHE Apparel, a pair of lingerie shops in Calgary that specialize in custom-fitted bras, bathing suits and resort wear. For her, this holiday started 10 months ago, when she ordered the stock designed to entice the predominantly male customers that buy from her at this time of year. They’re more likely to purchase fashion pieces, not everyday undergarments, and they seem to only like items in black, red or white, Ms. Smith points out.

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Efforts ramped up a few months ago, with her team hosting fashion shows at private clubs across the city. The idea? Inform the mostly male attendees how to buy lingerie, sell gift cards on the scene, and hope to see some of those guys again in the stores.

Her Valentine’s Day week began bright and early, up at 5 a.m. on Monday for an appearance on TV show Breakfast Television. It’ll end with her and her staff working long, intense hours – she puts a blackout on staff holiday requests from Feb. 1 to 14.

In business since 2005, Ms. Smith has years of sales records and experience on the floor of her shop to draws on to master this mini holiday. And she needs to. “If we are not stocked enough or are overstocked, it can be quite devastating,” says Ms. Smith, who notes that her Christmas payables are due now, though January tends to be very quiet. “If February isn’t strong, it can really hurt you into the spring months and beyond. You’re playing catch up for the rest of the year, right until Christmas.”

For companies that make or sell consumer goods, some degree of seasonality is unavoidable. So when you get a bonus holiday such as Valentine’s Day in the mix because you deal in underwear, flowers, chocolates or jewellry, you’ve got to maximize sales and minimize waste. Executing this day well can help a business ride out the cold winter and set it up for a good year.

A successful seasonal high starts with advanced planning. At Soma Chocolatemaker, a decade-old Toronto-based company that makes its own products from scratch and has two retail outlets and a small wholesale business, that planning actually begins in the summer.

In the warm months of the year, when sales are quiet, husband-and-wife co-owners Cynthia Leung and David Castellan start coming up with ideas for Valentine’s-specific goodies. “It’s good for us to have lows and highs. We need that time to come up with new products.”

The staff always meet weekly, and throughout the fall Valentine’s Day products and tasting prototypes often make it onto the agenda.

Ms. Leung strives for an array of products at different price points. She wants to be creative but not go overboard with flavours that could be too esoteric. Meanwhile, she knows her customers are not always buying something for a romantic partner. “Not everything should be a heart,” she says.

Ms. Leung gives her wholesale customers a deadline of Jan. 15 to put in their orders for the holiday. By then, she says, her recipes are perfected – this year they include a chocolate heart filled with raspberry praline crunch and a chocolate mousse kit – and she is able to order ingredients in time.

But it’s not just what you offer on the holiday, it’s making sure you have the right amount to meet demand. That’s a primary concern for the family-owned Van Belle Flowers, which runs two locations – one includes greenhouses and a garden centre – in Whitby, Ont., and Bowmanville, Ont.

On Valentine’s Day, the company sells mostly red roses, which will bloom and wilt within days and they are no longer in demand as of Feb. 15.

“If you overbuy, even 400 to 500 roses, that’s all lost product,” says Martha Vandepol, who co-owns the company with four other family members. “Since we’ve been in business for 53 years, I know how many to order to be safe.”

To ensure customers do come by and snap up that carefully ordered stock, many small businesses turn to season-specific advertising. Van Belle does flyers, radio and print advertising, as well as e-mail blasts, to get ahead of the competition. “Everybody tries to have a different gimmick.”

The company always promotes its quality and prices, and this year Ms. Vandepol has an information-driven campaign that talks about the company’s eco-friendly suppliers that have sustainable practices and treat their employees well.

SHE Apparel runs a radio campaign in advance of the big day. Breakfast Television also gives the stores a major boost: Ms. Smith gets asked to appear almost every year, thanks to the relationships she’s built in the community and the fact she promotes only tasteful lingerie on the show. “You can’t pay for that kind of coverage.”

Great execution then comes down to smart use of manpower. At Van Belle, staff prep ribbons, bows and boxes over the two weeks prior to Valentine’s Day. Then on Feb. 13, family (including older kids, though they never miss school) and office staff all come out to put in two extra-long days. “It’s from 7 a.m., until you’re done,” Ms. Vandepol says.

Feb. 14 ends up being a bit of a party with everyone on the floor and takeout in the back room. Regulars bring Tim Horton’s coffee for the staff. “By noon we’re all giddy, as we’ve already been here for so many hours.”

Staffing the floor and keeping customers happy is the easy part for businesses that know their product and customers well. What you can’t control is where the day falls.

February can bring snowstorms. That’s not as big of a problem in indoor malls, but bad weather can keep customers at home – instead of flowers and chocolate, a guy might just nab flowers at the grocery store and decide that’s enough. (Men tend to be the big shoppers on this holiday and they leave their errands until the last minute.)

In many provinces, Valentine’s Day now falls close to Family Day long weekends. For Van Belle, the day off has reduced sales and the impact will be particularly rough this year as Feb. 14 is on a Friday and some families will be taking off for a four-day weekend. “This holiday has been a major blow to the floral industry,” she says.

So, well-run companies focus on leveling out those seasonal bumps as much as possible by offering products with year-round appeal.

That’s why Van Belle has focused in recent years on expanding its product offerings. It sells potted plants, gifts, home décor, jewellry and, in the warm months, opens up its garden centre. SHE Apparel gets what Ms. Smith calls “another kick at the can” when the spring hits and customers show up wanting bathing suits.

But not today. Today’s it’s about things red, romantic and affordable. A well-run seasonal business finds few surprises on Valentine’s Day, just a mad rush of customers and, ideally, a sales bump that will help with cash flow for the next few months.

“For us, it’s a fun day,” Ms. Vandepol says. “When you’ve done the proper work to get ready, when you have enough to sell, it’s quite fun.”

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