"Last year it was really last-minute," said Lucy Gustafson, owner of artisan chocolatier Recherche du Plaisir in Santa Rosa. "I had a guy knocking on my door at 7 p.m., an hour after we closed."

This year, Gustafson stocked up in anticipation of an even bigger Valentine's Day for her 2-year-old business. Even so, by Thursday afternoon, she was worried about running out of product entirely.

"I'll be staying here all night if I have to," she said, vowing to make sure she has plenty of stock for late-buying Valentine's customers.

The Savory Spice Shop in downtown Santa Rosa began carrying Gustafson's chocolate this year, the first time the store has stocked products specifically for Valentine's Day, co-owner Cheryl Ytreeide said.

"Last year, oddly enough, a lot of kids or young adults were buying (spices as) presents for mom and dad, especially dad," she said. "Spices on Valentine's Day is a guy thing."

In addition to the chocolate, the store added a special "Onyx Black Sugar," mixing a debittered cocoa powder, vanilla bean, cinnamon and sugar to create a rich, slightly spicy product that can be sprinkled on baked goods or, in the form of black sugar cubes, dropped into coffee or tea.

The jars of black sugar cubes have been selling briskly, about two dozen in the last two weeks, and the company is considering adding it as a regular seasonal product for the holiday, Ytreeide said.

But the real star of Valentine's Day remains the flower, merchants say, particularly the rose.

"I think people are willing to pay ... even though it's very expensive," said Peter Thomson, co-owner of Santa Rosa-based flower delivery service Wisteria Florist. The business expects to sell at least 60 rose arrangements, most of which will probably be the middle-priced offering, which runs $90.

Florists, however, say the high cost of roses isn't really their fault. Wholesale prices double or more in the weeks leading up to the holiday.

"I cannot mark up my percentage high enough to cover that amount because people will not pay that. We're not really that crazy about this holiday," said Barbara Loutsch, owner of Stems Floral Design in Santa Rosa and a 25-year veteran of the flower business. "People think we're making just this huge amount of money. We get a lot of orders, but percentage-wise we're not making that much."

Sales for Valentine's Day are down somewhat this year, she said, but only because the holiday falls next to a weekend. When Feb. 14 falls on or near a weekend, couples tend to go out to eat or travel to celebrate. When it is midweek, flower sales soar.

Last year, Valentine's Day was a Thursday. "We took our sheets from last year, added it all up and reduced it by about 20 percent," in projecting business for this year, Loutsch said.

The average person plans to spend $134 on candy, cards, gifts, dinner and more this Valentine's Day, up from $131 last year, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation. Total spending is expected to reach $17.3 billion.

Nearly half will buy candy, a third will give flowers and more than half will send greeting cards, the trade group reported. Nineteen percent will treat their Valentine to jewelry and 37 percent will celebrate with an evening out on the town.

To maintain the loyalty of her customers, Stems sells roses at $80 per dozen for red and $75 for colored flowers, Loutsch said. At least 50 percent of her sales are roses, particularly last-minute customers.

Customer Riley Garratt of Santa Rosa opted instead for a custom blend of lilies, orchids, snapdragons and other non-traditional flowers when he stopped by Stems on Thursday afternoon to pick up a gift for his fiancee.

"I like the idea of sort of picking things out myself," he said. "I think it adds a personal touch. And I know the preferences of my sweetheart, which are not roses."

A short time later, Kurt Leal of Santa Rosa emerged from Sift Cupcake and Desert Bar on Mendocino Avenue carrying a colorful box of treats. He said he was planning a surprise party tomorrow night for his girlfriend, complete with the cupcakes, roses and hand-dipped chocolate-covered strawberries. He expects to drop at least $80 on the event, which is in part to thank her for the birth of the couple's son, who will turn 1 the day after Valentine's Day.

"It's worth it, to see the look on her face and everything," he said. "She's gone though a lot and this is everything for her."