Valentine's Day public holiday a lovely idea

The boxes stood glittering on the shelf, an inviting array of overpriced caloric bombs.

I nudged my husband and pointed to the "Valentine's Day: Treats for your Sweet" sign. "Don't forget, I like only dark chocolate," I said.

"That's nice," he said agreeably. "But you're the one who has to buy them for me."

"But it's Valentine's Day," I protested. "And you don't even like chocolate."

"That's not the point," he replied. "In Japan, girls buy boys gifts on Valentine's Day. And you better buy me a big box, otherwise very embarrassing for me."

Unfortunately, he was right. When Japanese confectioners tried to import the lucrative tradition of Valentine's Day in the 1950s, they overlooked one fact: Japanese men are not used to buying nice things for their women.

In the first year Valentine's Day chocolates were introduced in Japan, sales reportedly came up to a grand total of three chocolate bars.

So, as the best companies do, sweet makers repositioned the product to fit their market. Instead of selling to men, they designated Feb 14 as The Day Japanese Women Buy Chocolates.

And not just one box each either. Thanks to a savvy advertising blitz, Japanese women now have to buy boxes upon boxes of "giri" (obligation) chocolates for their male colleagues and "cho giri" (ultra-obligation) chocolates for the particularly annoying office sleazebags.

Then they have to splash out on ingredients and recipes to make their own "honmei" chocolates to convey their "genuine sentiments" to that one special guy.

In recent years, Japanese consumers have become so brainwashed they've invented their own customs. Not content with just buying chocolates for boys, girls now exchange "tomo-choko" - "tomodachi" or "friend" chocolates - on Feb 14.

What really takes the (heart-shaped) cake, however, is the latest "new" trend: Japanese guys giving girls chocolates on Valentine's Day.

Naturally, these are called "gyaku" or "reverse" chocolates. To promote them, some companies have even begun printing their designs backwards on chocolate boxes.

All this means that from a non-event 60 years ago, Valentine's Day in Japan has become a huge production today, accounting for 20 per cent of the country's chocolate sales in a year.

The best part is, the country now has two Valentine's Days. Guys repay the girls they like with sweets on March 14, known as White Day - named after the marshmallows whose manufacturers, well, manufactured the idea.

So what can Singapore learn from all this? There are two lessons.

First, Valentine's Day is obviously a gold mine for companies seeking profits. But it is also a godsend for countries seeking more babies.

In the weeks leading up to Feb 14, people are more open to romance. Between Christmas and Valentine's Day, new subscriptions at Match.com jump 130 per cent.

Meanwhile, wine makers sell more than 1.6 million bottles of bubbly in the week of Valentine's Day, while Durex says condom sales rise 20 to 30 per cent in the two weeks around that date.

Clearly, the day of love is a natural start to nine months of baby. Except Singaporeans don't seem to be convinced.

Which brings us to the second lesson. Success in policy making, like in marketing, lies in the right packaging.

How to make Singaporeans buy into Valentine's Day? Give them what they want most: a public holiday.

No one is in the mood to work on Feb 14 anyway. Girls are daydreaming about their romantic evenings ahead, guys are scrambling to make last-minute restaurant reservations and people without a date are all grumpy.

Why not give everyone the day off, or at least a half day, to either get an early start to the night's festivities or drown their sorrows at a bar with other attractive singles?

Singapore already has fewer public holidays and annual leave days than most other countries. Another day won't make much of a difference - it might even raise productivity where it actually counts.

To really seal the deal - or, more accurately, to make sure Singaporeans do - the holiday should fall not on Valentine's Day itself, but on the Friday of that week.

After all, a free public holiday is great, but a long weekend is what really gets Singaporeans in the mood.

Most importantly, the authorities need to track down the people responsible for mysteriously removing condoms from sale at a local university recently - and hire them to perform the exact same trick on Valentine's Day, but this time islandwide.

Mix all this up and throw in a bit of good old-fashioned romance, and hospitals may just have to hire more highly skilled nurses in November to handle the deluge of babies.

Will this idea work? There's only one way to find out. And if it does, I don't need any thanks, really.

Just send over some good chocolates. Dark ones, please.

fiochan@sph.com.sg

This article was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 17, 2013