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As Tastes Change, Bridal Retailers Struggle to Woo Millennials

Millennials are accused of “killing” plenty of industries, but the wedding industry isn’t one of them.

Young people ages 22 to 37 have been blamed for the plummeting sales for everything from cereal to diamonds, but the data suggests they’re more than happy to spend on their nuptials. According to research assembled by the team at Edited, millennials are spending more than the past four generations on weddings, averaging $36,000 in 2017.

So why is David’s Bridal struggling to keep the doors open while others, like Alfred Angelo, have closed down completely?

The bridal market is struggling through many of the same challenges as other fashion retailers—an influx of digitally-native competitors, rising costs to run brick-and-mortar stores, and even a trend toward personalization through companies like Anomalie, which let brides design their own gown from the comfort of their own homes. It’s a big change from traditional bridal showrooms like David’s Bridal, which filed for bankruptcy protection while the company undergoes reorganization.

David’s Bridal has more than 300 stores throughout North America and the United Kingdom, which it plans to keep open even while its future is uncertain. The chain proudly advertises dresses in every size from 0 to 30W, from brands like Oleg Cassini, Galina, White by Vera Wang and Tadashi Shoji, as well as in-house collections. At one point, the company boasted it dressed one in three brides in the U.S., according to the company’s website.

Maybe the company’s size and large selection was exactly the problem.

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“[Specialty] bridal hasn’t been an easy feat to tackle for most mass and premium brands,” said Rebecca Milne at Edited, citing companies like Gap and J.Crew that have left bridal behind without much fanfare. Instead, Milne explained, mainstream brands are targeting grooms and bridesmaids, aiming to capitalize on “sheer volume of people, multi-wear use and promotional potential.”

As for the bride herself, according to Nicole Haase, VP of merchandising and retail experience at ModCloth explained, a fully-personalized experience is key, and traditional bridal shopping doesn’t provide that. “The brick and mortar experience is really costly and hard to manage, especially for a specialty business like bridal,” said Haase. “In order to be successful, you have to be relevant and where your customer is.” For today’s bride, the “where” is online.

Alternative shopping methods

Arizona bride-to-be Allie Long found “the one” via social. Not her fiancé, mind you, but the wedding gown designer she fell in love with long before she became engaged. “They got me way before I actually started shopping,” Long said. She first heard about Rue de Seine, a “modern bohemian” bridal designer, from a married friend who sent her images of gowns from Instagram. From that point on, Long was hooked.

“The brand is what drew me, not just the dress, though the gowns are gorgeous,” Long said. She followed the Rue de Seine Instagram to keep track of new collections, special promotions and giveaways, and eventually signed up for the brand’s email list. She was planning a vacation to California when she got an email from Rue de Seine about a trunk show there. The biggest draw of the trunk show experience was the chance to meet Michele Corty, Rue de Seine’s founder and designer.

Long is part of a generation that hasn’t been exposed to bridal styling primarily through glossy magazines. Instead, millennials curate their bridal inspiration themselves through social media, which means they see other brides’ behind-the-scenes photos as well as editorial photoshoots. Some brands take advantage of that.

“We are seeing bridal salons being more active with social media these days, as they want to engage with real brides and show them what dresses they carry, how certain styles look on real brides, when they’ll be available in-store and how they can be styled,” said Shelley Brown, fashion and beauty editor at The Knot. “A lot of bridal salons do an amazing job with their social media marketing and giving brides an inside look at behind-the-scenes of the bridal fashion industry, while also being informative.”

While brides might find these shops online, there’s still something about shopping in a physical store that resonates.

According to The Knot Bridal Fashion Study, 74 percent of brides say that having a dress shopping experience is important to them. That experience, however, looks very different than it did a generation ago.

Brown pointed to two factors in dress shopping that are uniquely millennial requirements: a supportive environment and a short wait time.

“As is, wedding dress samples are rarely larger than a size 14, which makes wedding dress shopping an unpleasant experience for many,” Brown said. “As the body positivity movement continues to gain momentum, more brides will demand a shopping experience that doesn’t shame or embarrass them.” Additionally, Brown said, millennial brides love shopping online and are used to having their needs met immediately. “Many millennial brides think a wedding dress can be purchased off the rack at a salon and will be available immediately, but it can actually take up to six months for a dress to arrive in stores,” said Brown. She noted that some brides may simply be unwilling to wait that long.

And even with a selection as broad as David’s Bridal, it’s hard to settle for an in-store selection when an infinite number is only a few clicks away.

Feeling right at home

ModCloth had long been an online shopping hotspot for unique styles when the company announced it would debut a bridal collection in 2016. Haase said it makes sense that women used to the accessible pricing and dedicated customer service experience at ModCloth and other online brands would seek out the same thing in their bridal shopping.

“You’re seeing more and more online options and styling services so that she can try on the products in the comfort of her own space,” she said.

Edited’s data supports this notion. For both bridal gowns and bridesmaid shopping, women are turning to brands that are already familiar, in price, fit and ease of use, such as & Other Stories and Reformation.

Research from Edited shows that ASOS continues to maintain its popularity with U.S. brides looking for mid-range options, while in both the U.K. and U.S., the top retailer is Net-a-Porter. All segments of the market, from value to luxury, have a stake in the market these days, putting pressure on places like David’s Bridal. Some mass-market retailers, like Walmart, are even carving out their own space in bridal, not with gowns but with accessories and casual outfits for brides- and grooms-to-be.

More options that hit more price points and preferences also play into a current consumer trend.

Alissa Guzman, content manager at the Doneger Group, said brides and grooms are tending towards more casual wedding fashion for the reception and “wedding weekend” events, often buying several outfits to suit every wedding event. This trend could be responsible for redistributing both brides’ and grooms’ apparel budgets. Those “extra” wedding outfits are a lot easier to repurpose in the professional world than formal ceremony clothes, Guzman notes, reflecting the “refined casual” look that many millennial weddings are emulating.

Milne agreed that comfort remains key for modern brides. Even following Meghan Markle’s nuptials to Prince Harry, U.S. brides still remained steadfastly committed to actualizing their own visions. “Despite the protocol and formality that comes with royal weddings, we’re sitting in a time where weddings are all-in-all pretty casual affairs,” said Milne.

The cost question

Wedding costs continue to climb, and despite the troubles facing bridal chains, the average bride’s spend on gown and accessories is growing, too. According to The Knot’s 2017 Real Weddings Study, the average wedding cost was $33,391, with $1,509 of that budget allocated just to the gown. Costs have been rising steadily since 2011, when the average cost of a wedding was $27,021 and dresses averaged $1,121.

Even though brides are spending more to look great on their big day, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going high end. Since they’re buying multiple wedding outfits, there’s a good chance they’re spending less on each look.

“Today’s couples are all about personalization and creating a wedding that’s uniquely theirs,” said Brown. “It’s no surprise that brides are looking to express that through their wedding fashion as well.”

Bridal brands that are able to cater to this impulse are more likely to find consumers who are willing to splash out to get exactly what they want. That’s how Long approached her dress shopping experience.

“I had always planned on paying what I needed to pay for exactly what I wanted,” Long said. “And I found the most beautiful dress, and I had such a special experience doing it.”