Bridal industry hit as fewer couples say 'I do'

WASHINGTON • This autumn, Alfred Angelo Bridal held a big sale at its warehouse in Florida. The boutique was not courting brides-to-be - individual gowns could not be bought, although they were available in bulk. The top seller that day was a 2008 Ford Cargo Van, which went for US$5,300 (S$7,200).

This particular sale was a bankruptcy auction. Alfred Angelo, which once handled a well-respected corner of the American wedding industry, filed for liquidation in July.

Overnight, customers found their orders unfulfilled, leaving brides scrambling to find dresses in time for weddings that, in some cases, had to be called off.

Even before the company's collapse, the bridal industry was in chaos. The old guard had been losing business to upstarts backed by Silicon Valley and legacy retailers seeking a chunk of a reliable market.

David's Bridal, the long-time leader with a 25 per cent market share, is facing a pile of debt.

It is not just about the dress.

Signet Jewellers, owner of Jared, Kay and Zales, is dealing with lacklustre sales as bigger fish stalk the engagement and wedding ring space.

Ms Raya Sokolyanska, an analyst at Moody's, said there is a new paradigm in bridal retail.

"The bride can buy a budget wedding gown online or a white dress from any apparel brand instead of a traditional gown," she said.

"That's increased competition for David's Bridal and other bridal retailers, especially at the lower end."

More choice may be good news for the soon-to-be-betrothed, but it is small solace for the little stores which, for decades, traded on a deep cultural fixation with wedding accoutrements.

It also does not help that the overall pie is shrinking. Marriage rates have fallen since the mid-1980s as more couples choose to live together before heading to the altar.

The number of adults who never married has reached a record-high 20 per cent, a cultural earthquake largely driven by millennials skipping the tradition entirely.

Even as wedding rates fall, a frenzy is under way to claim a foothold in the existing space.

Gap has Weddington Way; Urban Outfitters has BHLDN.

Nordstrom, Macy's and Bloomingdale's are all taking a piece of the bridal business, selling everything from bridesmaid dresses to wedding bands.

Then, there are the start-ups.

Venture-capital firms have pumped at least US$490 million into the bridal industry in recent years, according to Bloomberg.

There are new registry services, such as Zola and Blueprint.

Dress renters include Vow To Be Chic and Brideside.

Diamond Foundry grows diamonds in a California laboratory for setting in engagement rings.

Almost any retail industry in the world of brick-and-mortar is susceptible to attack by e-commerce.

But bridal shops have been pretty well insulated, by dint of what they sell and how they sell it.

Buying a wedding dress is traditionally an emotional, once-in-a-lifetime event. Not the sort of thing one does on Amazon.com.

Many American brides will always want the full, in-person treatment, the industry reasons - in part since that has always been the case.

Department stores and fashion retailers saw an opportunity to convert extra space into their own version of this reliable moneymaker. So they jumped into bridal. And it worked.

Executives at Urban Outfitters, which also owns Anthropologie and Free People, regularly call out BHLDN (as in "beholden") for being one of its fastest-growing brands.

The store sells bridal gowns and bridesmaid dresses, along with accessories, at 16 locations and online.

Weddington Way has 10 boutiques tucked inside Banana Republic shops so shoppers can get style advice and dress fittings in person.

Many other upstarts also hope to win over brides. Dresses are a hot category, with start-ups such as Vow To Be Chic, Union Station, Borrowing Magnolia and Get The Gown offering designer-dress rentals for brides and bridesmaids.

Clothing rental pioneer Rent The Runway - much bigger than its specialised counterparts - has also got involved with its online wedding shop, serving up looks for brides, bridesmaids, the mother of the bride and guests.

With all this competition, there is at least a little good news for embattled bridal boutiques. Not every new entrant to the arena succeeds.

After a decade of trying to win a piece of the wedding business, J. Crew nixed its bridal line last year and all signs of nuptials were removed from its stores and website.

As for Alfred Angelo, Ms Patricia Ann Redmond, a bankruptcy lawyer representing the company, is trying to get customers their gowns.

"We have delivered dresses to 500 to 600 brides and bridal-party members," she added.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2017, with the headline 'Bridal industry hit as fewer couples say 'I do''. Print Edition | Subscribe