PARIS (Reuters Life!) - Parisians determined to celebrate St. Valentine's Day despite the global economic gloom turned to discounted gifts, one-off splurges and paper hearts.
Retailers have struggled to cope with diminished demand by cutting prices and extending the sales season. But Valentine shoppers willing to splurge on life's little luxuries and lingerie can still be found in the city of love.
"Buying a gift is a pleasure, it is not at all an obligation, and my choice is not going to be based on the price," said Laurent, a 32-year-old teacher browsing through the lingerie department of the elegant Galeries Lafayette.
Laurent, who was looking for a gift for his girlfriend, declined to give a surname in case she read about his shopping.
Karine Labrunie, a saleswoman at the Chantal Thomass section in the lingerie department which sells bras that can cost as much as 200 euros ($258.3), was similarly upbeat.
"There are still people coming. Maybe slightly fewer, but it is not catastrophic," she said.
Like other retailers across Paris, Chantal Thomass continued the discounts beyond the sales season, offering 15 percent off.
Such falling prices, combined with relaxed oil prices, have helped European consumer confidence improve despite the recession, surveys showed in January.
Retail industry observers in France and Italy said couples would still treat themselves to something special for St. Valentine's Day but opt for smaller presents such as cosmetics, flowers, chocolates or cuddly toys.
Ticket sellers in Paris were reporting that the most popular shows, such as musicals, had already sold out for February 14.
Truly extravagant treats such as luxury weekend breaks appeared to be less popular with consumers.
With one day to go, it was still possible to book a romantic weekend at the Four Seasons and the Ritz, where the 1150 euro special includes pillow cases embroidered with your initials.
And while the big chains can adjust their prices, many smaller retailers are in despair.
"We're not even selling post cards. Even the tourists are staying away," said Madame Soaros, an assistant at paper shop La Maison du Timbre in central Paris, pointing to the window she had lovingly decorated with red hearts and fountain pens.
To spread some cheer amid the gloom, cinema students Paul Bougault, 20, and Benjamin Fourmont, 21, were handing out pink paper hearts to passers-by on the Rue Saint-Lazare.
"We are giving out hearts to counter the crisis and help people see the bright side of life in these difficult times. People are sad all the time these days," said Bougault.
Additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Milan, editing by Paul Casciato