Customers lined up outside Rheb's Candy early Monday, even before owner Wynn Harger opened the doors of the Southwest Baltimore shop his family has run for three generations. People, mostly men, crammed into the tiny, cottage-like store for much of the morning for one purpose — securing the handmade chocolates for Valentine's Day.
"It's what my wife wants," said Dennis Eder, who traveled from Dundalk to Rheb's on Wilkens Avenue to purchase a two-pound box of assorted chocolates for his wife, Isabel. He has bought her Rheb's candy every year for about 45 years. "It's a family tradition."
For Rheb's, which runs a candy factory in a rowhouse basement across an alley from the store, the holiday has become one of the biggest of the year — only Christmas and Easter beat it. But that could soon change: Valentine's-related sales are growing faster than Easter sales, Harger said.
Retailers who deal in candy, from the specialty shops such as Rheb's to the big-box retailers where candy displays have sprouted in recent weeks, are benefiting from the growing Valentine's candy trend and from increased spending on the holiday in general.
This year, more than half of consumers who will give Valentine's gifts plan to give candy, spending $1.6 billion in total, the National Retail Federation says. The portion planning to give candy, 51 percent, is up about 3.5 percent since 2011, the retail federation said.
"If you look historically at Valentine's Day, it's been about small tokens of affection," said Katie McBreen, a spokeswoman for the retail trade group. "Candy is a good go-to for Valentine's Day. Who doesn't like chocolate?"
The average shopper is expected to spend $130.97 this Valentine's on gifts, candy and cards, the group says. Total Valentine's gift spending is expected to increase to $18.6 billion, from $17.6 billion in 2012, the retail federation said.
That's not surprising to Harger — grandson of founders Louis and Esther Rheb — who grew up around candy-making and returned to the family business in the mid-1970s.
"It tastes good, and it makes you feel good," he said. "It's a happy gift, and it's fairly inexpensive."
Candy sellers say their product is enough of a treat to stand on its own as a gift, but affordable enough that it can be combined with other Valentine's favorites such as flowers, jewelry or a dinner out.
Valentine's Day ranks as the fourth-largest candy-selling holiday, behind Halloween, Easter and Christmas/Hanukkah, according to the National Confectioners Association. Chocolate will account for nearly three-quarters of the total spending, the association said.
"Because confectionery is often part of traditions or celebrations, the seasons are important for candy," said Susan Smith, a confectioners association spokeswoman.
She said the timing of this year's holiday, on a weekday rather than a weekend, will help the industry because, "we tend to celebrate with gifts during the week, whereas on the weekend we go out to dinner or for a romantic getaway or date."
Though the holiday is closely linked to chocolate, it's a good time of year for candy in general, said B.G. Purcell, CEO of Mouth Party LLC, a Parkville-based maker, retailer and wholesaler of caramels.
"The beauty of candy in general is it's something people can treat themselves and others to that's an escape, not just a fabulous taste but a reward," Purcell said. "Candy is indulgent, but if it's good homemade candy, it's worth the extra calories to enjoy it."
Purcell started her business in 2006 using the recipe her stepmother had used for years. Now her caramels, in flavors such as chocolate, cinnamon, cappuccino and one called OMG! that's dipped in milk chocolate and dusted with sea salt, are sold by 120 retailers, mostly in Maryland, including Graul's, Eddie's and other gourmet grocers, coffee shops and even a consignment shop.
Purcell said grocery store customers this year increased their Valentine's caramel orders, which typically sell in either half-pound or 1-pound bags. This year, Mouth Party also created a special five-piece Valentine's box of raspberry-dipped dark chocolate caramels.
"We're trying to capitalize on the candy craze" for Valentine's, Purcell said. "And we started realizing people who don't like chocolate love caramel."
One of her online customers, Sarah Bancroft-Howard, who lives just north of St. Paul in Minnesota, has been ordering caramels online from Mouth Party for several years. This year, she ordered raspberry chocolate caramels for her husband and three small bags of OMG! caramels, one for each of her kids.
"I've always done candy for Valentine's," Bancroft-Howard said. "It's sort of synonymous with the holiday. I don't like to go totally overboard with a big gift, but I consider this to be a special piece of candy, something that doesn't come from a grocery store."