University of Southern California

Valentine's Day - Who Indulges?
February 11, 2011

Retailers often believe that Valentine’s Day is all about making consumers “feel the love”—red roses, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, and Valentine’s Cards. But for a significant portion of the population, Valentine’s Day may be more aptly described as Single Person’s Awareness Day - a time with considerable emphasis on a person’s relationship status.  This emphasis actually changes the shopping behavior of people in ways you may not expect says consumer psychology expert Dr. Lisa Cavanaugh, Assistant Professor of Marketing at USC Marshall School of Business.

Cavanaugh began studying the differences between how single and coupled women respond to Valentine’s Day while earning her Ph.D. at Duke University, where she built a store during Valentine’s week and decorated it with hearts, teddy bears, and roses. 

When participants came into Cavanaugh’s lab, she offered them a range of food choices from healthy, to decidedly not so. “There’s this stereotype that single women gorge themselves and revel in self-pity on Valentine’s Day. They get a gallon of ice cream, rent a romantic comedy, and unabashedly indulge,” Cavanaugh says. Her findings serve to dispute that common stereotype that consumers console themselves with consumption. Cavanaugh’s research argues that “feelings of deservingness really matter".

  • When given the choice between a range of snacks: a healthy fruit and nut bar, a moderately healthy chocolate chip granola bar and a calorically indulgent Snickers bar, the singles made the healthier choices, i.e. more fruit and nut bars, while the coupled individuals went for the Snickers.
  • When given the choice of choosing modest versus higher-end brands of clothing and accessories, both singles consistently resisted the urge to splurge when reminded of others’ romantic relationships.
  • Singles (women and men) consistently spent less money and fewer calories when their environments made romantic relationships salient. However, when Valentine’s Day was depicted as a holiday about “loved ones” (e.g., close friends) as opposed to “lovers,” singles were just as likely to indulge as coupled individuals.   

One key issue that emerges from her research, Cavanaugh says, is the “irony of the ‘happy’ holiday for consumers and retailers alike. Retailers may be inadvertently shifting what’s purchased in ways they did not intend - in some cases, they may actually be hurting their bottom line, particularly for the shopping behavior of singles.

Lisa Cavanaugh is Assistant Professor of Marketing in the USC Marshall School of Business. To learn more about Assistant Professor Cavanaugh and her work on consumer emotions, please visit her webpage.