The Bridal Council decided it was best that members not travel to New York for its spring market event. It was Feb. 27, weeks before most of the industry temporarily shut its doors or delayed events due to the spread of the coronavirus. "We started to hear everything going on with COVID in different parts of the world, but not realizing how bad it was going to become for us here in the United States," said Michele Iacovelli, executive director of The Bridal Council.
The luxury bridal designers who make up the membership of The Bridal Council instead turned to technology, presenting their latest collections in virtual or digital presentations. A number of brands quickly developed digital assets including images, lookbooks and, in some cases, video.
Now, months later, New York Luxury Bridal Fashion Week is again going digital for its October market, building on its pivot from in-person runway events. "As everyone's health and well-being is our main concern, this approach will allow for the designers' collections to be seen by the retailers, media and other industry professionals, without needing to travel to NYC," the organization said in a July press release.
Like many retailers, the bridal segment is quickly adopting digital solutions to meet the needs of its audience. But, is technology sufficient to fill gaps in the wedding industry, which, by its nature, is high-touch and personal?
A new era in wedding retail
The pandemic has undoubtedly wreaked havoc on retail this year. Companies that were once stalwarts of the industry (J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus), along with specialty favorites (Brooks Brothers and J. Crew) have tumbled.
Wedding retail has not escaped the chaos.
Saks Fifth Avenue will close its bridal flagship salons in New York and Beverly Hills at the end of 2020, the company confirmed to Retail Dive. "We're working with our bridal customers to complete all current orders and are committed to delivering a personalized, service-oriented experience," a Saks spokesperson said in a statement.
Nordstrom recently closed its Wedding Suites and will be phasing out that portion of its business. "[W]hen we look at the feedback we're getting from our customers, it's clear our resources should be focused on bringing them a different mix of styles and merchandise they want to find when they shop," according to a company spokesperson.
Wedding juggernaut The Knot launched the "Official Guidebook for COVID-19 Wedding Help" in order to guide couples through the process of pulling off an event during a pandemic. In May, The Atlantic warned that impacts of the current crisis on the sector may last for years to come.
"The industry is now realizing, not only is it not a short-term thing, there's not an end date for it. We need to consider 2020 weddings as they would have been — that's not happening."
Owner, A Southern Soiree
Back in early spring when the United States was still grappling with the scope of the pandemic, many couples were simply shifting their wedding dates to late summer or the fall. However, now there is a growing recognition that even concepts of what the event looks like will simply have to evolve.
"The industry is now realizing, not only is it not a short-term thing, there's not an end date for it. We need to consider 2020 weddings as they would have been — that's not happening," said Megan Gillikin, owner of wedding event planning company A Southern Soiree and host of the podcast "Weddings for Real." Gillikin, who also owns The Planners Vault, an educational membership site for wedding planners, said that many weddings are not being canceled, but are instead recalibrating in size.
"A lot of my couples are choosing to go ahead and have a small, intimate ceremony," she said, explaining that many people are then planning on a separate, large celebration sometime in 2021. "So many of us planners at the top are saying 'OK, I need to come up with an all-inclusive package.'"
Those decisions — which in most cases are determined by how many people are allowed to gather according to local governments — influence how couples interact with vendors and retailers, and realign priorities when it comes to spending.
"Polls suggest that they're still going to spend on the basics, but I think we need to see where the data shakes out," said Sonia Lapinsky, managing director in the retail practice at the global consulting firm AlixPartners. "You could say that brides might spend just as much on their gowns because they're not spending money on the event … it could be that gown that they're either showing off in their 'mini-monies' or showing off in their Zoom wedding."
However, tech may prove to be an ideal avenue where retailers can work to supplement product and event offerings. "Technology for sure is a reaction to try and preserve the experience," Lapinsky said.
About that dress ...
While many are thinking through how the logistics of their big day have been altered, there is a very real impact on the apparel part of the bridal industry. Namely, the wedding dress.
"It's probably the single largest purchase most people will make in their life for one single garment, especially on the luxury end," The Bridal Council's Iacovelli said. "You're talking about it could be, you know, $8,000, $10,000 for a gown. It's very rare unless you're doing something in the entertainment business where you're on the red carpet that you would be wearing as expensive, or if not more expensive, a gown from a ready-to-wear perspective."
Brides may be willing to hand over some of their day to technology, but the switch to buying a wedding dress online may be difficult for some shoppers.
"They're buying everything else online now, so why not bridal?"
Managing Director, AlixPartners
"I have not had a bride that has been comfortable selecting a wedding dress over Zoom or a virtual consult," Gillikin said regarding the trend of retailers offering virtual appointments with stylists in order to pick out a gown. "That is not something that our clients have embraced as of yet. They are more likely to do that for their bridesmaids gowns."
That doesn't mean that consumers will never be ready to buy a high ticket item online. Some retailers nudged their way into the space with more affordable price points — Anthropologie's BHLDN launched on Valentine's Day in 2011, while J. Crew introduced bridal in 2004, until it shut that aspect of its business in 2016. But, those options came after people started regularly buying clothes online, Lapinsky said. "I think it's just training the customer," she said. "They're buying everything else online now, so why not bridal?"
Gillikin did theorize that it's possible that brides can move in a direction to buy their dress online. "People buy cars that are $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 without having seen them in person. So it could be, but I don't know — a wedding is so personal and special," she said, noting that the industry could shift from the personal interaction of being able to touch and interact with a dress. "I think it'd be interesting to see a business really nail that experience ... but, I haven't seen it for those high-level purchases in these few months that we've been in the pandemic."
That might be because apparel as a whole is going through a vexing moment, one that predates the pandemic. In 2019, 10 of 16 major retail bankruptcies were companies that sell apparel or footwear. At the time, CreditRiskMonitor forecast that out of 28 retailers that could go bankrupt in 2020, half sold apparel.
Then came the immediate impact of COVID-19, which pummeled the category. Most clothing retailers, including those in the bridal segment, were pushed to temporarily shutter in order to stop the spread of the virus. In April, clothing and accessories sales went down an unprecedented 89%. The segment somewhat recovered in the months following (it was down 25% in June), but comparative to other years is still struggling significantly.
Yet, wedding apparel isn't just any other dress bought off the rack. Selecting wedding apparel is deeply personal, emotional and typically involves tailoring the garment to properly fit a bride. And those factors contribute to a business product that can endure a pandemic, according to Kelly Cook, chief marketing and IT officer of David's Bridal.
"The difference in our businesses is that we are sort of resistant to that because we've got a timeless product that we offer" Cook said, especially in comparison to other types of apparel retail. Clothing is particularly volatile when it comes to the impact of COVID-19, according to Moody's Global Coronavirus Heat Map, which indicated that apparel is highly exposed to business shocks.
As Cook explained, traffic to the David's Bridal website, which is 25% higher than last year, confirms that the market is still highly engaged with wedding retail. Brides pre-shop for 30 to 60 days, she said, and use resources the company has recently introduced, including a vision board, interactive wedding checklist and customizable website. Couples can also use the company's Wedding Vision Tool to curate a concept for their big day. "We continue to make major strides and investments in our digital transformation," David's Bridal CEO Jim Marcum said in a statement announcing the retailer's new technological features.
Like many wedding retailers, it took David's Bridal awhile to reach the point that it knew that it needed to integrate tech innovation in its retail operations. Cook, who arrived at the company last fall, said that the company was already engaged in a path to modernize its marketing and tech experiences, but the pandemic sped up the process. "What happened when COVID hit," she said, was it "got expedited very, very quickly."
And David's Bridal certainly has made dramatic strides to catch up. A flurry of announcements have been made since the start of the year regarding innovations at the company, including the aforementioned online vision board and Wedding Vision Tool. The bridal retailer also introduced virtual stylists and appointments, named a new chief technology officer, unveiled a concierge chatbot named Zoey and partnered with mobile wallet marketing platform Popwallet to provide customers with coupons and rebates.
But, will the wedding retail industry need all that technology post-pandemic?
What will remain
There is what is needed now and what is needed in the future. Couples will still get married, even as they shift their expectations to what is possible when declaring their love mid-pandemic.
The wedding industry, which is steeped in ritual and fantasy fulfillment, has overwhelmingly been slow to adapt to some of the e-commerce and digital transformations that have been expected of other retailers. "It's been based on this really interactive, one-on-one experience, and that's historically the way bridal shopping has always been," Lapinsky said. But that may change as the pandemic forces digital transformation and as the tech itself accelerates.
Couples, too, are also learning that tech can be a part of how they shop and plan for their wedding day. Gillikin said that instead of embracing all things tech, couples that she works with are slowly incorporating those digital aspects that are familiar, like livestreaming during a ceremony. She expects, though, that retailers are going to move from quick fixes to evolve to work more closely to fill the needs of her clientele. "Do I think that more technology will come that will make it more enticing or easier for a bride to connect with a dress? Yes. But I haven't seen that technology as of yet," she said.
Lapinsky agrees. "The pandemic has forced retailers to embrace technology and embrace new ways of working that they've never done before," said Lapinsky. "It's been an acceleration of innovation that we haven't seen."
The ultimate prize of taking market share, though, will go to those companies that are bold innovators. "The retailers who are first to develop the technology — first to get it out there and connect with their customers, are going to be the ones I think we see win," she said.