A couple enjoy a romantic moment on Valentine's Day in Palos Verdes… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
Yolanda Miranda spent two months planning for Valentine's Day this year -- assembling hundreds of cellophane-wrapped gift baskets, designing dozens of flower bouquets, hunting for deals on teddy bears, holiday mugs and picture frames.
A year ago, she made $3,000 peddling Valentine's Day gifts from a folding table in a Northridge parking lot. This year, she doubled her offerings, staked out three spots, and imagined dollar signs over every heart.
But on Sunday night, Miranda was pacing the sidewalk in front of her home, her melting candy, wilted roses and untouched pile of teddy bears crowding her tiny front lawn.
In three days, she had sold only about 40 gift baskets -- 300 fewer than 2009 -- and not a single one of her $10 floral arrangements: five roses in a glass vase, with a sprig of baby's breath.
Miranda took in only $400, she said -- barely enough to pay for the vases, not to mention the teddy bears, baskets, balloons and 600 flowers.
She wasn't ready to calculate her loss. "I can try to sell the toys again next year," she told me. "And maybe someone will still come." She pulled her cellphone from her pocket to check the time and peered down the street into the dark.
It was almost 8 p.m. on Valentine's Night, and the economy had spoken.
There's no way to know how many street vendors set up shop for what was supposed to be a holiday bonanza. I was on the road a lot this weekend -- in the San Fernando Valley and Hancock Park, in Glendale and Santa Monica -- and they seemed to be on every corner.
I saw elaborate canopy-covered displays, and balloons tied to rusty shopping carts; life-sized teddy bears holding pink hearts, and costume jewelry in cardboard boxes.
What I didn't see was customers.
"People look, but they don't buy," a vendor named Nancy told me Sunday, her table at a busy Reseda intersection covered with unsold rose-filled vases.
She works for a Santa Monica florist, assembling funeral sprays and hospital bouquets. And she's grown to rely on the several hundred dollars she makes each year freelancing on holidays.
"Four years, I've been doing this on Valentine's Day, and this is the worst it's ever been," she said. "People say they're too expensive," she said. Her hurt feelings showed.
"This would go for $75 or $80 in the store," she said, gesturing toward an arrangement of two dozen red roses. "I sell it for $40. But people don't want it. . . . They say 'I want one rose, not the whole thing.' "
On Sunday evening, she began packing up, disappointed but with her entrepreneurial spirit intact.
She would take the bouquets apart, repackage the single roses, then hawk them to couples out on dates, where it's harder for a man to say no.
"I'll go to the dance clubs and try to sell them," she said. But at a few dollars a rose, she'd still wind up in the hole.
I'm not an economist, but I think I can figure out what's going on: too little cash in buyers' pockets and too much competition among the sellers.
Valentine's Day spending was down for the second straight year, and purchases were less frivolous.
People were more inclined to spring for durable gifts -- think lingerie and heart-covered boxers -- than splurge on perishable sweets and flowers.
Flower shops felt the shift last year. Their sales dipped by as much as 30% as shoppers sought bargains at grocery stores, parking lots and freeway off-ramps and parking lots.
That's why Yolanda Miranda was able to rake in $3,000. "The people just kept coming," she recalled.
This year, "Everybody said it would be even better . . . because it's a crisis, and people want to save money. But it was nothing like I expected."
Instead, "the customers say 'That's $10? I'll give you $5 for it.' "
The stories of last year's trickle-down windfall drew so many new sellers this year that shoppers had more bargaining power.
I saw that play out along Roscoe Boulevard, a few miles from Miranda's house, where her second stand operated on the sidewalk in front of a used car lot, just steps away from a competitor's spot.
On Sunday night, both were disappointedly packing up.
"Nada," the fellow next door to Miranda's table said when I asked how the weekend's sales had gone.
He's an electrician but not working much because of the construction slowdown, he said. He and his wife took a friend's advice and sunk $300 into giant teddy bears. They hoped to make twice what they spent. They didn't sell a single one.
"A month of [Catholic school] tuition, gone," he said, as he loaded the stuffed animals into his van. He was too embarrassed to tell me his name. And he hadn't figured out how to break the news to his wife.
I suggested he stop off on the way home and try to get a bargain on a big vase of flowers.