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Many people struggle to find the ideal Valentine's Day gift. Try including a handwritten note to show that you care. ((iStock))

Couples may walk hand in hand, fawning over each other and their perfect Valentine's Day gifts in the daydreams of hopeless romantics, but the reality for most of us is that we scramble frantically to find even a satisfactory gift for our special someone.

The mid-winter holiday is often a time for mad dashes to any store that looks like it might possibly sell flowers, chocolates or anything that could pass for red or heart shaped.

Valentine's Day tends to divide along gender lines: according to a 2003 survey by the matchmaking service Lavalife, 41 per cent of men forget the holiday altogether, compared to 22 per cent of women.

This is fairly surprising given the heavy consumer push in the lead-up to Valentine's Day.

Some have said you can't buy love, but that doesn't stop Valentine's Day adherents from spending — a lot.

The National Retail Federation, a U.S.-based trade association of retailers and restaurateurs, says Americans are expected to spend $15.7 billion US this year on the holiday.

Strictly based on population, that means Canadians will spend about $1.5 billion.

Flowers, chocolate, jewelry... cats?

Heather Evans, a professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., who has studied the history of the holiday, says the retail aspect of Valentine's Day has been around since the mid-19th century, though the push for extravagant purchases has accelerated during the last 50 years.

"It's not just about the cards and the dinner and the flowers; it's all of the trinkets and toys," she says.

Suggestions for gifts can be as varied as the shoppers crowding the lineup at the local gas station on the evening of Feb. 14. But some old standards include flowers, jewelry, chocolate or the classic Valentine's Day card.

This year, three animal shelters in Calgary are taking a new approach. They've organized a Love a Cat/Love a Dog adopt-a-thon, which runs Feb. 11-14. For just $75, you can buy a furry feline for your special someone; for $100, you'll get a playful pooch. That's a 50 per cent discount from the regular shelter prices.

The truth is, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to Valentine's gifts.

Love stinks sometimes

In 2010, a farmer in Minnesota decided to get creative with his Valentine's Day gift.

Bruce Andersland created an 800-metre-wide heart out of manure on his farm near Albert Lea, 150 kilometres south of Minneapolis. The two-day endeavour was the way he chose to express his devotion to his wife of 37 years.

Beth Andersland, the recipient of the smelly show of affection, dismissed any suggestion that a manure heart was gross.

"Why not do something fun with what you got?" she told the Albert Lea Tribune.

Sprucing up your average gift

John Pliniussen, business professor at Queen's, says picking the right gift depends on what you are trying to accomplish .

"If it's efficient that you want, go online and do what about three million people do before Valentine's Day: you order flowers or you order chocolates," he says.

"You just click, buy and it's done."

Pliniussen says flowers and chocolate are fine — much better than receiving nothing at all — but if you really want to take the gift to a new level, spend some time on it.

He suggests incorporating a personal component into a card, include a memorable moment or an expression of why your special someone is so important to you.

"It's a traditional gift, but when you see someone's handwritten words, it really rings true to your heart. It really touches you," he says.

Try to match the gift to the personality of your partner, he says. If your spouse is concerned about the environment, take them to an eco-friendly restaurant. If they're a do-it-yourself type, build something for them.

Get creative, he says.

Think about the experience

Another way to take an average gift to the next level is to think of presentation.

Flowers wilt and chocolates get eaten, but memories last, Pliniussen says.

Instead of simply giving a box of candy, invite your date over and make a dessert together, he suggests.

If you're short on cash, and somewhat brave, try writing a poem and reciting it to your lover in public.

"That would take maybe one minute to present, but they'll never forget that," he says.

By making an event out of it, the gift is paired with a lasting memory.

Evans urges caution when buying gifts because much of the hype around Valentine's Day encourages people to make snappy decisions.

"It's designed to encourage you to make those quick purchases without thinking about it: just go and grab something, it's got a big heart, and it's supposed to express something, but it really doesn't," she says.

"It just says you didn't think about it and that you ran out to the store at the last minute."

Then again, if you're reading this on Feb. 14, it might already be too late.