February 28, 2005, 12:00 AM

Love lifts online sales

Valentine’s Day will never drive consumer spending on the scale of the Christmas holidays, but it certainly gave online gift retailers’ Q1 a big shot in the arm, with many reporting record shipments and sales.

Valentine’s Day will never drive consumer spending on the scale of the Christmas holidays, but it certainly gave online gift retailers’ Q1 a big shot in the arm, with many reporting record shipments and sales. Provide Commerce’s Proflowers.com, for example, packed up more than 6 million roses, 2 million tulips and enough other flowers to record more than 532,000 shipments of floral gifts in the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, up from 409,000 a year ago.

During the previous week, Proflowers.com was the fastest-growing gift and flowers destination, Nielsen/NetRatings reported, up 156% from a week before, with 387,000 visitors. FTD.com grew 106% with 336,000 visitors, and 1-800-flowers.com was up 91% with 947,000 visitors. “Online florists strategically offered shoppers special discounts for early orders and sweepstakes to maximize customer acquisition opportunities for the biggest day in flower sales,” says Heather Dougherty, senior retail analyst, Nielsen/NetRatings.

Flowers weren’t the only brisk sellers online – love in the air sparked sales across the entire gift category. According to comScore Networks, for the week ending Feb. 13, the day before Valentine’s Day, online sales in the flowers, gifts & greetings category were $124 million, the second highest weekly total ever recorded for the category. That’s up 40% from last year, and it edges close to the $152 million in online sales for the pre-Christmas week ending Dec. 19, the week that’s the category’s all-time record holder.

Payments processor and provider of security systems VeriSign Inc. estimates that for the two weeks ending Feb. 14, online Valentine’s Day spending was $3.9 billion, up by 30% over last year. During that period, online spending in the jewelry category showed one of the biggest increases over last year, posting a 34% year over year gain. Diamonds led all subcategories with a 130% increase in online spending over last year. Online spending on candy was up 25% over last year, while online flower sales were up by 16%, according to VeriSign.

Online spending in the greeting card category experienced the greatest year-over-year growth rate in the gift category, 50%. AmericanGreetings.com web sites hosted 4.3 million visitors on Monday, up from an average of 862,000 in the five previous days, comScore reports.

But for Hallmark.com’s e-card business, Valentine’s Day proved to be too much of a good thing this year. Hallmark.com servers crashed several times on Feb. 14 as users tried to send and receive cards. ComScore reports 962,000 visitors to the site on Valentine’s Day. The five days prior to Valentine’s Day averaged 350,000 visitors.

“It was unprecedented traffic for us,” says a Hallmark spokeswoman, adding that Hallmark.com had anticipated Valentine’s Day traffic more than twice the normal volume. Hallmark believes that the traffic was exceptionally high this year because Valentine’s Day fell on a weekday, when consumers have access to high-speed Internet connections at work, and that consumers were attracted to its free e-cards.

Hallmark sent e-mail apologies after Feb. 14 to every customer it could identify who had experienced difficulty receiving the e-cards. The company is working with IBM, its hosting company, to avert similar problems in the future, the spokeswoman says.

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